PORTSMOUTH, England -- President Clinton, under fire from critics who have accused him of being too soft in opposing North Korea's purported nuclear ambitions, significantly stepped up his rhetoric yesterday, saying that the United States would consider imposing sanctions without the United Nations if the Security Council proves unable to make a decision.
He also warned that the North would risk "certain, terrible defeat and destruction" if it retaliated.
The remarks, made in nationally televised interviews as Mr. Clinton sailed toward France for the commemoration of the D-Day landing, came shortly after Defense Secreatry William J. Perry suggested publicly for the first time yesterday that Washington would be prepared to go outside the United Nations to rally Asian and European allies to isolate North Korea economically.
Together, the comments illustrate the narrow line that the president and his top aides are trying to walk as they attempt to manage the crisis that has developed from North Korea's refusal to allow International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections of its nuclear facilities.
On the one hand, the administration wants to counter the attacks of domestic critics who have accused Mr. Clinton of being weak and vacillating in his foreign policy.
Yesterday, for example, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, a leading Republican foreign policy spokesman, charged the administration with "appeasement" of the North Koreans and said Mr. Clinton was acting in the "tradition of Neville Chamberlain," the British prime minister who appeased Hitler in seeking to avoid war over Czechoslovakia before World War II.
At the same time, Mr. Clinton and his aides want to play down the talk of war that has buzzed through Washington, fearing, among other things, that bellicose language could get out of hand, potentially prompting the unpredictable North Korean leaders into a pre-emptive strike that could open a full-scale war.
The United States, Japan and South Korea have agreed to seek sanctions against North Korea in the wake of the declaration by the IAEA that North Korean actions had made it impossible to verify whether or not Pyongyang had diverted weapons-grade plutonium from an experimental nuclear reactor. Such acts by North Korea would violate the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
In the past, North Korean spokesmen have said sanctions would be considered an act of war, but U.S. officials have dismissed those statements as bluster. Mr. Clinton said he did not believe they would carry through on the threats.
"I don't think that they would risk the certain, terrible defeat and destruction that would occur if they did that," he told ABC News.
But while the administration proceeds to seek sanctions from the United Nations, senior U.S. officials, worried that China will veto any sanctions resolution, have begun to explore additional avenues to thwart the Pyongyang regime.
Mr. Perry said on NBC's "Meet the Press" that it is "entirely possible" that China would block a Security Council resolution against North Korea.
And Mr. Clinton, interviewed by NBC News, said that while he still hopes support from China and from Russia will allow the United Nations to move forward, "if it doesn't we'll have to look at who else wants to do it, and what else we can do." Sanctions could be imposed by a "so-called coalition of the willing," he added.
Mr. Perry and other senior officials here for ceremonies commemorating the 50th anniversary of D-Day insisted that the administration will continue to work through the United Nations and privately with Beijing to try to reach a consensus on a U.N. sanctions resolution.
But officials noted China's continued reticence about punishing -- and possibly provoking -- its Communist neighbor and important trading partner.
Other officials caution that the administration sees sanctions as a difficult and potentially dangerous step and would prefer to compel Pyongyang to accept international oversight of its nuclear facilities through less drastic means.
But North Korea reiterated yesterday that it will not bow to outside pressure to open up its nuclear program, which it insists is peaceful.