U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros Ghali's visit to North Korea should reinforce the message that Security Council action will come next year if the Pyongyang regime continues to rebuff international inspection of its nuclear facilities. American officials, who have had their differences with the United Nations leader, are less than enthusiastic about his entry into these intricate negotiations. But since this enhances Mr. Boutros Ghali's image of independence, it may strengthen his hand in his talks with the North Koreans.
For the United States, the need to stop North Korea's nuclear program has become "very urgent" in light of evidence that it has already obtained enough plutonium to make a couple of bombs. If this is the case, a showdown could be in the making. The International Atomic Energy Agency board is to meet in February. Should it declare that North Korea is refusing inspections and is in non-compliance, the issue then would go to the Security Council.
The credibility of protracted attempts to stop the spread of nuclear weapons would then be on the table. Equally important, China would be confronted with the choice of sticking with its old North Korean allies or going along with international sanctions to force Pyongyang into compliance. The Clinton administration, after taking heat in Congress for continuing normal trade relations with China, is plainly hoping for the latter. If not, a lot more than Korea policy will have to be reassessed.
In the past year, the United States has applied both bluster and blandishment in an effort to get North Korea to accept non-nuclear status and international inspections of its suspect facilities. But Pyongyang has balked, content that its intransigence had drawn U.S. attention or even hints of eventual recognition. Meanwhile, South Korea and Japan have been ambivalent -- fearful of a nuclear North Korea but skittish about confrontation.
Enter Mr. Boutros Ghali, whose one preoccupation as secretary general has been to strengthen the peace enforcement powers of the United Nations. His policies, especially in Somalia, have caused friction with Washington. But if he wishes to put real teeth in U.N. efforts to stop nuclear proliferation, this would seem to coincide with U.S. objectives. Secretary of State Warren Christopher has declared that this country will not tolerate any form of nuclear weapons program in North Korea. Nor should the United Nations.