US officials conferred yesterday with Japan and South Korea over the sanctions. But the North Korean regime is already so isolated politically and commercially that these are unlikely to have a significant impact.
The attitude of China is seen as critical in putting significant pressure on Pyongyang because it could veto sanctions in the UN Security Council.
Washington wants China to abstain. The need for Chinese co-operation over North Korea was a reason why President Clinton backed away from confrontation with China over human rights and trade last week.
If China does not join the embargo it will be difficult to enforce it because 60 per cent of North Korean oil comes from China and 75 per cent of its food imports. The North Koreans are also reported to have stockpiled several years' supply of food.
While stepping up the pressure on the North Koreans the US does not want to provoke a full-scale war or the threat of one. The US has decided not to move naval exercises closer to the North Korean coast and will keep the door open for a diplomatic solution.
At issue is the North Korean refusal to allow International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors to look at the 8,000 fuel rods being withdrawn from their reactor to see if plutonium had been diverted in the past.
In the longer term, the North Koreans see their threat to build a nuclear bomb as their one card to extract normalisation of diplomatic and trade relations with the United States.
A plan for sanctions proposed by Robert Galluci, the Clinton administration's top official dealing with North Korea, is reported to contain two elements: first is a call on other countries not to buy arms or munitions from North Korea; in the past the North Koreans have sold ground-to-ground missiles to Syria and Iran.
A second part of the plan would be to get Japan to stop dollars 1bn ( pounds 700m) in remittances sent home by the 250,000 North Koreans who live in Japan.
Although North Korea is seen as the most serious threat facing the US, according to opinion polls there is little enthusiasm for an all- out confrontation. There are 37,000 US troops in South Korea, and nuclear missiles are on board the submarines of the Pacific fleet; the US has refused to rule out their use against North Korea.
Selig Harrison, a specialist on Korea at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, argues that the North Korean leadership is divided about the prospects for a deal with the US. In talks in 1992 the US sought to limit talks with Pyongyang to the nuclear issue while the North Koreans wanted to broaden it into a discussion on the normalisation of relations.
There is also division in Washington about the significance of the present crisis. A leading newspaper columnist, William Safire, advocates the US compelling Japan, China, South Korea and Russia to isolate North Korth. He suggests President Clinton saying to the four countries: 'Together we can impose an immensely credible threat; if that doesn't work - if we are dealing with madmen - together we can make short work of the war.'
From the White House's point of view it is important to avoid accusations of appeasement by Republicans and to put real pressure on Pyongyang. So far the US has sent Patriot anti-missile missiles to South Korea but no other significant reinforcements. North Korea is said to have tested two anti-ship cruise missiles on Tuesday, and is preparing a test-firing of its Rodong medium-range missile which could hit Japan.
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