If Kim Il Sung has heard about Western criticism of President Clinton's foreign policy as wavering and thinks he can bluff the United States out of firm action against his nuclear weapons program, he is making a mistake.
On this issue the administration's watchword is resolution. So I believe after conversations here. I do not sense the tentativeness that has marked the search for effective policies in Bosnia and Haiti.The national security interest in the Korean nuclear question is overpoweringly clear. If five or 10 years from now North Korea were making numbers of nuclear weapons and selling them, with missile systems, to Iran or Iraq or other rogue regimes, it would be an intolerably more dangerous world.
For three years, under Presidents Bush and Clinton, the United States tried to deal with the problem by diplomacy. The North Koreans responded by bobbing and weaving, indicating at times that they would allow full inspection of their nuclear facilities if we opened diplomatic relations, then abruptly barring international inspectors from the site that would have shown whether they had diverted nuclear fuel to bombmaking.
Now the Clinton administration is moving to economic sanctions. Over this past weekend American officials agreed on a sanctions package with two crucial partners, Japan and South Korea.
The plan is for sanctions to be applied in phases, becoming increasingly severe if North Korea remains intransigent.
For example, a ban on North Koreans in Japan sending money home - they send as much as $1 billion a year - might not be imposed until the second phase. But the entire package has been agreed upon and does not have to be renegotiated with Japan or South Korea.
The big question mark on sanctions is China, North Korea's neighbor and supplier of the one import on which it is most dependent: oil. The Chinese government has been critical of sanctions. But there are also signs that it is worried about the instability caused by the nuclear policy of its longtime ally in Pyongyang.
Will sanctions work? No one can be sure they will persuade Kim Il Sung to back down on his nuclear weapons program. North Korea is largely self-sufficient, and its family dictatorship can ignore public opinion. But the country's economy is in terrible shape, and sanctions will at a minimum increase the pain.
It will in any event take much determination for the United States and its friends to see the policy through. North Korea will undoubtedly float new negotiating ideas, as it has already started to do. Real results will not come instantly.
What are the results the Clinton policy seeks? First, and most important, to prevent diversion of nuclear fuel to weapons in the future - by opening the critical processes to inspection. Second, to find out, as best inspectors still can, what happened in the past, so we do not seem to be winking at past violations of North Korea's obligations under the nonproliferation treaty.
Some observers are critical of the phased sanctions plan as too slow, too weak. But on this problem steadiness is more important than speed. For there can be no quick fix.