SEATTLE -- Facing a secretive nation and its potential nuclear threat in Asia, Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher warned North Korea yesterday of "options other than negotiation" if it continued to resist international inspection of its nuclear sites.
While stressing "the U.S. is committed to a diplomatic solution," the secretary of state made clear that the United States soon would press for United Nations Security Council sanctions against North Korea if it failed to cooperate.
At the same time, he said he expected cooperation from China, a North Korean ally with a Security Council veto, if the stepped-up pressure is applied in a "sequential" fashion that stresses negotiation and dialogue first.
Mr. Christopher's statements reflected the Clinton administration's view of hard-line Communist North Korea as one of the world's most dangerous potential flash points.
The closed society, heavily armed, suspected of nuclear ambitions and committed to development of ballistic missiles also faces a succession crisis as 81-year-old dictator Kim Il Sung prepares to give way to his unpredictable son, Kim Jong Il.
The danger posed by the world's last isolated Stalinist power hangs menacingly over the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum here that aims to forge closer links between Asia and North America and create a more open trading system.
Yesterday, Mr. Christopher appeared to be shaking the stick in the carrot-and-stick approach Washington has developed toward a menacing problem that could overshadow other foreign policy challenges like Haiti, Somalia and even Bosnia.
As part of a new diplomatic strategy in the cat-and-mouse game with North Korea, President Clinton is expected to offer to suspend next year's joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises -- viewed by North Korea as a rehearsal for an invasion -- if Pyongyang agrees to resume its dialogue with the South and permit International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) visits to already declared nuclear sites, officials here say.
The IAEA says cameras set up to monitor the sites are dangerously close to running out of batteries and film, although North Korea has indicated it was willing to allow the cameras to be maintained.
Throughout the year, North Korea has refused to let the IAEA conduct an inspection of undeclared sites where it is suspected of storing nuclear waste material that would shed important light on how much fuel it already has.
Even more crucial, the IAEA says, is assuring that inspectors are present in coming months when North Korea changes the "core" of a nuclear reactor. Samples from this core would give the clearest evidence yet about the extent of nuclear fuel reprocessing.
China's help to be sought
President Clinton is expected to enlist further Chinese help in breaking the alarming nuclear impasse with North Korea during a meeting here tomorrow with President Jiang Zemin.
But one U.S. official said the broad outlines of strategy to bring pressure on the North have been agreed to by China, Japan and South Korea.
In his speech yesterday at the University of Washington, Mr. Christopher said, that "we insist on North Korea's full compliance with all of its international commitments, including the Non-Proliferation Treaty."
"If North Korea refuses the necessary inspections -- and refuses to resume a dialogue with South Korea on nuclear issues -- then we are prepared to recommend that the U.N. Security Council consider options other than negotiation."
Responding to a question, he said "we would anticipate (Chinese) cooperation if we move sequentially through these steps."
Although Mr. Christopher thus left the door open to eventual military action, a senior official said that presently "the types of options under discussion are confined to economic sanctions." This would primarily involve an oil cutoff by China, which has been demanding hard-currency payments from North Korea.
The U.S. strategy to deal with North Korea has been a mixture of sternness and caution because of fears in Washington and Asian capitals a misstep or miscalculation could ignite a new Korean conflict.
Even sanctions could seriously escalate the crisis, since North Korea, feeling cornered, might retaliate militarily against the South. This is why Seoul and Tokyo have urged a moderate diplomatic approach.
A pre-emptive military strike could produce radioactive fallout on South Korea and Japan and send both the North Korean Army and a flood of refugees into the South.
North Korea is developing an improved Scud missile with the range to hit Japan. Its ability to fashion a nuclear warhead to the missile would increase pressure within Japan to launch its own nuclear-weapon program, a fear that would play into China's willingness to put pressure on its ally.
"We have to utilize dialogue as much as we can," Kim San-Hoon, special assistant to South Korea's foreign minister, said in an interview here.
Yesterday's statement by Mr. Christopher marked an effort to stake out a clear position after a series of mixed signals in recent months about how tough the United States was prepared to be.
Leonard S. Spector, one of the country's leading authorities on nuclear spread, says it is hard for Americans as well as Asians to follow recent twists and turns in U.S. policy.
In July, Mr. Christopher warned that North Korean stalling might bring on United Nations discussion of sanctions.
Defense Secretary Les Aspin went to Japan and South Korea early this month with a planned goal of not pushing Pyongyang into a corner but rather leaving it room to pull back from the brink in a face-saving way. He said in Seoul that the ball was in North Korea's court.
Then came Mr. Clinton's blunt warning on NBC's "Meet the Press." He said: "North Korea cannot be allowed to develop a nuclear bomb."
One reason for the mixed messages is uncertainty over Pyongyang's intentions -- whether it is determined to become a nuclear power or is holding out for ever-greater concessions.
R. James Woolsey, the Director of Central Intelligence, has estimated ever since taking office in early February that North Korea probably has enough fissionable material to make one or two nuclear bombs. This seems as imprecise as the estimate of his predecessor, Robert M. Gates, in Feb., 1992, that North Korea was between "a few months and a couple of years" from having a bomb.
The Central Intelligence Agency might have more definite secret estimates. But Mr. McCurdy's argument this month was that, "We have no idea just how much plutonium [North Korea] may have or how close it is to a bomb."
Equally disturbing is the lack of knowledge about North Korea's internal political situation, including the extent of dissent about whether Pyongyang should continue its 40-year isolation and the degree of power sharing between Kim Il Sung and his son.
If North Korea cooperates with the full extent of inspections, resumes serious talks with the south and adheres to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, the United States is prepared to normalize relations with Pyongyang, officials have said.