President Clinton and South Korean President Kim Young Sam on Tuesday held out the promise of better relations with North Korea if it would abandon its nuclear program, but they remained divided over how best to prod the Communist regime into doing so.
The statements by the two presidents--made after they met for an hour--underscored their willingness to use some kind of inducements, rather than threats alone, to persuade North Korea to cooperate with nuclear inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency.
"My Administration has made it clear to North Korea that it now faces a simple choice. If it abandons its nuclear option and honors its international non-proliferation commitments, the door will be open on a wide range of issues not only with the United States but with the rest of the world," Clinton said at a joint press conference with Kim. "If it does not, it risks facing the increased opposition of the entire international community."
The eight-month standoff over North Korea's refusal to allow inspections of its nuclear facilities--and the suspicions of American officials that the north may already have developed at least one nuclear device--increasingly have moved to the top of the Clinton Administration's foreign policy agenda.
"Time is not on our side," a senior Administration official told reporters after the meeting between Clinton and Kim. "This is a matter of increasing urgency."
The Administration's desire to find a new approach to the Korean problem has been rocky, in part because of opposition from South Korea to some U.S. ideas and in part, officials say, because there simply are not many good options for dealing with the extremely suspicious, heavily armed and notoriously insular North Koreans.
The international nuclear agency continues to have monitoring devices installed at a North Korean nuclear reactor, but North Korea's refusal to allow those devices to be checked and maintained has increasingly limited their usefulness. Officials say that within a few more weeks, the agency no longer will be able to monitor the reactor effectively.
Because of the deterioration of the existing safeguards, the Administration has been searching with increasing urgency for a strategy that can get the Pyongyang government to change its policies and, at the same time, gain the assent of South Korea, Japan and China.
Tuesday's statements, like a speech last week by Secretary of State Warren Christopher, tried to combine the promise of better relations if the north complies with the thinly veiled threat of international sanctions if it does not.
"After going through a carrot phase, we are going through a carrot and stick phase," South Korean Foreign Minister Han Sung Joo said at a separate press conference later in the day.
The carrot is what both Clinton and Kim described--in a carefully worded phrase--as the offer of a "thorough, broad" discussion of all aspects of relations with the north if Pyongyang agrees to two conditions. The conditions are to resume talks with South Korea and to permit nuclear inspections by the international agency as required under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
If the North Koreans agree to those two conditions, the United States and South Korea will "re-examine our security approach," Clinton said--a reference to the possibility that the two countries would suspend their planned Team Spirit joint military exercises now scheduled for the spring.
The potential stick, if North Korea does not agree, would be to go to the U.N. Security Council and seek sanctions against the north.
The sanctions approach has at least two problems.
First, Pyongyang already has very limited trade with the rest of the world, and the effect of sanctions would therefore probably be limited, the senior U.S. official said.
The second problem, U.S. and South Korean officials both conceded, is that China, which could veto any sanctions move at the United Nations, has not yet agreed to consider sanctions.
"We need to persuade the Chinese that we have, in fact, exhausted the diplomatic alternatives" before seeking sanctions, the senior U.S. official said.
"Perhaps if we brought the issue to the Security Council today, China would say, 'What happened? Why are you doing this so suddenly?' " said South Korea's Han. "After the efforts we will have made, China will not have the excuse."
The sensitivity of all the parties involved in the negotiations could be seen in the extremely cautious wording of the statements Clinton and Kim made after their meetings. Officials of both governments said the two took great pains to ensure that their language would be identical--particularly the "thorough and broad" phrase.
Earlier, U.S. officials had talked of offering "comprehensive" talks with the north. The United States would prefer that sort of approach because "we don't want to be nickeled and dimed" in separate negotiations over each step toward compliance, the senior U.S. official said.
But South Korea's government balked at that phrase, fearing it would suggest a "package deal" that would trade North Korean compliance with the nuclear inspections for U.S. and South Korean concessions on issues such as Team Spirit.
"As far as we're concerned, the basic obligations to allow and guarantee the continuity of safeguards are not negotiable and can't be in a package," Han said.
Times staff writer Jim Mann contributed to this story.
* OVERTURE TO N. KOREA: New U.S. approach is a victory for doves over hawks. A10