US warns of Korean 'nuclear nightmare'

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AS THE Senate demanded sanctions against North Korea and the return of US tactical nuclear missiles to the South, the Defense Secretary-designate, William Perry, warned yesterday of a possible 'nightmare scenario' on the Korean peninsula if Pyongyang's nuclear ambitions are not checked.

As his confirmation hearing began on Capitol Hill, the mild-mannered Mr Perry acknowledged that North Korea might already have built a nuclear device: 'I'm unhappy that they may have one bomb, because it's part of a programme which could provide dozens of them. Our goal must be to stop that.'

Replying to Republican Senator John McCain's accusation that the Clinton administration had practised a policy of 'accommodation bordering on appeasement' towards North Korea, Mr Perry said he favoured the use of both carrot and stick, but that Washington must avoid precipitating a crisis. He further warned that whatever sanctions were applied, China's support was essential, even if that meant Washington easing its pressure for human rights progress. What might happen in China 'pales in comparison with the prospect of a nuclear war on the Korean peninsula'.

Korea is but the most visible potential military threat facing the US as it embarks on deep defence cuts in a most unstable world. Although the dollars 264bn (pounds 176bn) defence budget for 1995 is slightly higher than the previous year, the Pentagon must still find dollars 31bn of extra savings over the next five years to comply with future budget cuts.

Many defence hawks on Capitol Hill doubt whether Mr Perry, currently Deputy Secretary to the outgoing Les Aspin, has the clout to stand up for the military in a White House where foreign and security policy is well down the list of priorities. But speedy confirmation is all but certain.

The mood, though, is wary. The amendments attached to the State Department budget approved by the Senate call on President Clinton to seek UN-mandated trade sanctions against North Korea and the re-installation of nuclear weapons. 'We've created the impression we're militarily, politically and diplomatically impotent,' said Democratic Senator Charles Robb.