Seoul goes soft on Pyongyang sanctions

WASHINGTON'S policy problems over East Asia continued yesterday as its closest ally in the region warned that the US would have to be content with a bland resolution at best by the Security Council to bolster its demands for North Korea to open its nuclear sites up to international inspection.

Speaking after talks with the Secretary of State, Warren Christopher, South Korea's Foreign Minister, Han Sung- joo, predicted that despite its quarrel over trade and human rights with the US, China would not veto UN action. That assertion was some relief for officials here, who had been resigning themselves to the even weaker formula of a non- binding statement by the Council president. But, Mr Han warned, the resolution would perforce contain only 'minimum requirements' upon North Korea.

Mr Christopher also put an optimistic face on proceedings. He was 'not disappointed', he told reporters, at China's refusal earlier this week to embrace a US-led proposal for a tough resolution demanding that Pyongyang, widely suspected of developing - or having already developed - a nuclear device, allow UN inspectors to fully scrutinise its facilities.

But yesterday's meeting, 24 hours after the South Korean President, Kim Yung-sam, held talks with Chinese leaders to seek a common approach to dealing with the North, has underlined how limited is the enthusiasm even among US allies for the threats of stern action, including economic sanctions, which Washington has been brandishing to force compliance from North Korea.

There were 'some differences' of approach with China, Mr Han said yesterday. But like his President in Peking this week, he insisted that 'dialogue and persuasion' were the best means of resolving a dispute which, if recent rhetoric from Pyongyang was taken at face value, had come to the brink of open war. The tone has now cooled, but Washington has ordered deployment of anti-missile Patriot missiles to South Korea as a precaution, while joint exercises between the two countries have once again been scheduled, despite protest from the North.

Nonetheless, the US dilemma remains. Having seen the failure of what its domestic critics derided as an over-conciliatory 'carrot-and-carrot' policy, the Clinton Administration is searching for a stick - short of military action ackowledged to be a non- starter - that will not frighten its own allies and further antagonise China.

Despite the friction between Washington and Peking, the Administration maintains that China too wants to prevent an arms race in the region. Peking was acting on North Korea 'in its own self-interest', Winston Lord, the Assistant Secretary of State, said this week.

But any Chinese inclination to throw its weight publicly behind the US pales beside its anger at the threats here not to extend trade benefits when they come up for renewal this June as punishment for China's failure to improve its record on both human rights and arms proliferation.

But here too, Washington is being forced to change its tune. Confronted by the need to repair diplomatic relations with Peking the Administration is sending signals it may only seek a partial revocation of China's Most Favoured Nation trading status.

Mr Lord told the US Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday that one solution could be an end to MFN for exports from state-owned Chinese companies, while exempting the private sector.