US keeps its nuclear fingers crossed: North Korea is threatening to blast Seoul into a 'sea of fire', but Washington is resisting calls for a tougher response

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FROM A military base in Texas, a special freight train is journeying westward this weekend towards the Pacific coast. Its cargo, in camouflage green, is a first consignment of Patriot missile-defence systems, which were ordered to be deployed in South Korea by President Bill Clinton last Tuesday.

By yesterday, tension on the Korean peninsula was still rising. Both North and South Korea had put their troops on full alert. The North accused Seoul of triggering a 'catastrophic crisis' and even threatened to attack Japan if war broke out.

Yet the progress of the Patriots will not be fast. In fact, after crossing the ocean, they may not reach their destination for a full month. The choice of surface mail was calculated. Delivered by air, the Patriots could have been there by now. But the Clinton administration is charting a decidedly cautious course - an approach that leaves some people in Washington decidedly uneasy.

The struggle to force North Korea to open its nuclear facilities to international inspection has been going on for months. In February, Washington struck a diplomatic truce with Pyongyang: inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) were finally to be given free rein. But 10 days ago, they reported that access to a critical radio-laboratory had been denied and the process suddenly went awry. Storming out of border talks, the North's delegation talked of Seoul being turned into a 'sea of fire'.

Aside from the deployment of the Patriots, famously enlisted against Saddam's Scuds in the Gulf war, Washington has agreed to reinstate a joint military exercise with the South Koreans that had been suspended as part of the deal with the North. But that, for now, is it. The US hopes the rest of the action will take place in the United Nations, where next week the Security Council will debate a resolution censuring Pyongyang's behaviour and warning of possible sanctions.

An official close to Warren Christopher, the Secretary of State, confirms that for now hanging back is considered the best option. 'We are still inclined to give the North Koreans more time,' he said. Even if the warning resolution is successfully approved, the US may not support moving to application of full sanctions for at least another month.

Within the administration there seems little dissent with this approach. After calling senior Asian specialists into his office last week, Mr Christopher asked, rather helplessly, whether anyone had any better ideas. No one had.

Certainly, there are a number of reasons for caution: first, the military calculations.

The North has repeatedly warned over recent days that it would take imposition of sanctions as an act of war. Whether this is a bluff nobody knows. To assume so would be to take an awful risk, but Mr Clinton knows the part in American history about far-off Asian places consuming GI lives - and presidencies.

The Communists are known to have an armed force of 1.2 million, mostly massed near the border. In recent testimony to Congress, a senior military spokesman, Lt-Gen James Clapper, warned: 'We assess that the 4,000 to 6,000 artillery pieces along the Demilitarised Zone would rain down hundreds of thousands of artillery shells as far south as Seoul in the early phase of combat.'

The Pentagon contends that even faced with an all-out attack, defences in the South would hold. But the human losses could be terrifying, especially if, as some predict, the Scuds bore chemical warheads. But there are considerable diplomatic constraints, too. China, considered the nearest thing to an ally of Kim Il-Sung, the North Korean dictator, has repeatedly warned against pushing Pyongyang too hard.

On Friday a UN resolution urging North Korea to allow IAEA experts to complete checks of its nuclear facilities was obstructed by China, a permanent member of the Security Council with the power of veto.

It does not help that Washington and Peking are currently engaged in a heated squabble over trade and human rights. Only two weeks ago, Mr Christopher was humiliated during a visit to China, when his hosts publicly rebutted American demands for a series of corrections in human rights policy before being granted an extension of traditional trading privileges with the US.

On this, the US administration is far from united. Many are dismayed at the linkage of trade with human rights and warn that withdrawal of the privileges could rebound in dramatic fashion on American companies with investments in the booming Chinese economy. It is a link, however, that Mr Clinton himself wrote into an executive order on China policy last summer, and backing away from it will be difficult.

Almost unnoticed, meanwhile, is the awkward position Japan would find itself in if asked to enforce UN sanctions against North Korea. The Japanese Socialist Party, which makes up the largest part of the ruling coalition, has strong affiliations with the Communists in Korea and would almost certainly block such a move. If the government felt obliged to support the call for sanctions, it could quickly collapse.

Most analysts, anyway, wonder how effective measures could ever be to isolate a country that is already so isolated.

However, acute alarm about North Korea's nuclear activities remains. Some intelligence experts believe Pyongyang may already have built one or two bombs. It is virtually assured that they have been extracting plutonium for military use.

Richard Fisher, the director of the Heritage Foundation's Asian studies centre, fears North Korea will shortly be able to manufacture up to 12 bombs a year, perhaps all for export. For that reason alone, he says, Mr Clinton should be more robust in his treatment of the crisis. 'You could argue for taking risks now that might lead to a war - as horrible as that would be - versus living in a world where North Korea is able to sell bombs to groups that launch mortars against Heathrow or the World Trade Center.'

The use of chemical weapons by the North could wreak particular devastation, he warns. 'It would essentially decapitate all the retaliatory assets in the South and incapacitate our own military bases.'

The adequacy of the forces in the South has also been questioned in Congress, with some members openly challenging the commitment of South Korea to equip and man its own defences.

The Pentagon may be taking note. By mid-week, the Defence Secretary, William Perry, had confirmed that he would be sending additional US troops and hardware to the peninsula if and when UN sanctions are voted through. But for now, the administration is hoping that sanctions will not be necessary.

'Have we really reached a pivotal moment?' a senior aide of Mr Christopher asked. 'We still don't know.' The advice to the Secretary of State from his analysts, therefore, is that though the North may edge a little closer to the brink it will in the end seek a face-saving solution. That, anyway, is the uncertain hope of Washington.

(Photographs and map omitted)