After a breakdown in talks between a U.N. team and North Korea, U.S. lawmakers issued new warnings Sunday about the consequences if Pyongyang does not agree to international monitoring to prevent development of a nuclear weapons program.
Calling the defense of South Korea a "sacred obligation," Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.) said the North Korean government's brinkmanship could ultimately endanger its survival.
Pyongyang "should make no mistake about our dedication, our intention and our absolute firmness in continuing the course of making sure they do not become a nuclear weapons state," Nunn said on NBC's "Meet the Press."
Tensions heightened over the weekend when North Korea announced that it will continue unloading spent fuel at its main Yongbyon nuclear reactor but would "never allow" the International Atomic Energy Agency to inspect the facility to determine whether fuel has been secretly diverted from energy to weapons use.
North Korea has repeatedly denied that it has any form of nuclear weapons program, but U.S. intelligence agencies believe that enough enriched plutonium has been siphoned off to make one or two crude bombs.
After talks broke down Saturday, part of the IAEA team left North Korea, abruptly ending the latest effort in the 16-month crisis that has swung erratically between near-calamity and tentative cooperation.
The collapse could open the way for punitive U.N. economic sanctions, which North Korea has said it will treat as an act of war.
"We don't want a war," added Nunn, who is chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. But "if North Korea brings a war in reaction to any kind of sanctions, then they will bring about the destruction of their own country."
For months, the Clinton Administration has tried a carrot-and-stick strategy to engage the Communist state, offering diplomatic and economic incentives in exchange for cooperation on its nuclear program.
Pyongyang's latest actions indicate that tactic may have failed.
Nunn said Pyongyang faces three alternatives--and three different responses:
First, cooperation, which would be rewarded with membership in the family of nations through "trade and intercourse."
Second, resisting nuclear weapons monitoring, which would cause "a very serious financial situation, which could lead to their own disintegration."
And third, aggression, which would bring military defeat.
"The North Koreans are playing brinkmanship--this is their historical pattern--but playing this game has very dangerous consequences," he added.
Saying there are still methods of avoiding military confrontation, Sen. Bill Bradley (D-N.J.) suggested that the Clinton Administration exert pressure through Japan's economic ties and China's energy links.
"So you have two vises right there that can begin to squeeze, that might indeed take place if there were ever economic sanctions voted at the U.N. against North Korea," he said, also on "Meet the Press."
U.N. Security Council members met Friday to discuss the standoff, and more talks are scheduled at the United Nations on Tuesday.
After the holiday weekend, the Clinton Administration is expected to have to rethink its tactics on North Korea's nuclear program.
On Friday, the crisis appeared to take on new urgency when the IAEA, the U.N. nuclear monitoring agency, notified the Security Council that North Korea was removing the reactor's fuel rods so quickly that evidence of diverting fuel to a weapons program could be erased "within days."
International concern mounted further over the weekend with reports out of Japan that North Korea may soon test an advanced version of the Rodong 1 missile, which could reach most of western Japan.
Military analysts believe that the missile would be capable of carrying a nuclear warhead if it were refitted for that purpose.