US enlists Asian allies for sanctions on Pyongyang

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THE US is moving with South Korea and Japan towards a phased programme of sanctions against North Korea, in what amounts to a balancing act between hawks in Washington and more cautious figures in Tokyo.

This emerged from a series of weekend meetings in Seoul among senior officials of the three countries, and discussions in the White House on Friday attended by President Clinton and his advisers.

'We're working on a set of steps that will become a complete programme,' the US ambassador to Tokyo, Walter Mondale, told NBC's Meet the Press yesterday. The measures would be strong, Mr Mondale said, rebutting critics who accuse Mr Clinton of tough talk and feeble deeds in his handling of a foreign-policy crisis.

'Mild sanctions will send exactly the wrong signal to North Korea,' said the Republican Senator John McCain, advocate of a big US military build-up in the South and strikes against nuclear installations in the North if Pyongyang does not open them for a full UN inspection.

In fact, however, the build-up is being tailored to avoid provoking the Kim Il Sung regime and to ward off as long as possible any Chinese veto in the Security Council. It could be weeks before even the first steps are put to a UN vote.

Sterner measures such as a ban on remittances home by North Koreans living in Japan, one of the Kim regime's main sources of foreign currency, are further off still.

Initial sanctions may go no further than a halt to UN technical aid, and on cultural and scientific exchanges.

China said yesterday that sanctions on North Korea would be ineffective, but told the visiting Japanese foreign minister that it would participate positively in discussions within the UN framework on resolving the nuclear stand-off.

A Japanese spokesman said the Chinese Foreign Minister, Qian Qichen, had told them sanctions on North Korea would be ineffective, 'judging from the fact that it has already been isolated and has little economic contacts with the rest of the world'. He quoted Mr Qian as saying China was against resolving the issue by 'violence'.

China is crucial to any sanctions. Not only does it hold a veto, it supplies North Korea with most of its imported food and oil.