Leading Article: China must tackle the Korean pariah

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AN AGEING dictator with few years to live, a repressive and isolated regime, a failing economy, a population facing starvation, and a secret nuclear weapons programme. These may sound like the ingredients of a thriller; in fact, they could describe North Korea today. This week, Kim Il Sung's regime continued its defiance of the International Atomic Energy Agency's attempts to inspect its nuclear sites, raising further fears that it has been producing weapons- grade plutonium.

Policymakers in Washington, Tokyo and Europe now realise that they neglected the danger from North Korea for too long. When the dispute with the IAEA first arose more than a year ago, many believed that Mr Kim was using his disputed nuclear reactor complex as a bargaining chip for concessions from Washington. That is palpably no longer the case. In dealing seriously with the threat from North Korea, the world must therefore decide which policy will do less harm to the rule of law: inaction disguised as further negotiation, or sanctions whose effectiveness must be in doubt.

If they were approved by the UN Security Council, sanctions would bring home to North Korea the disapproval of the international community for its irresponsibility. The process of cutting off trading links with this pariah regime would also make it harder for Mr Kim to sell weapons or plutonium abroad, and would help to prepare world opinion for any military steps that might have to be taken.

But this policy has risks. Even if China did not veto the proposed sanctions, it would be unlikely to apply them - so the dribble of trade across the Chinese border that is North Korea's principal link with the outside world would continue. So the sanctions would be unlikely to have much practical effect. Were the Chinese to exercise their veto, as seemed likely from their behaviour yesterday, North Korea would be able to claim a propaganda victory in its stand-off with the IAEA.

For the moment, the West can find grounds for hope in a practical step that has already been taken against Mr Kim in Japan, where banks are refusing to co-operate with North Koreans who want to send their savings home to their families. This may cut off the totalitarian regime's biggest source of foreign exchange, and thus help to keep up the pressure. But no long- term solution to the North Korean problem is possible without Chinese co-operation. Everything possible must be done to persuade China's leaders that restraining North Korea is in their own interests as well as those of the rest of the world.