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CAN N. KOREA AVOID U.N. SANCTIONS?

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Trying to ease the confrontation with North Korea over nuclear inspections, President Clinton said on Saturday that North Korea could still take action to avoid economic sanctions.

The president's remarks, at a joint news conference with Prime Minister John Major prior to the D-Day commemorations, came a day after North Korea said it would regard sanctions as a declaration of war.The president did not specify what steps he expected the North Korean government to take to avoid sanctions, other than presumably opening up its nuclear sites for whatever inspections can still be carried out. And he insisted that North Korea's defiance "made it virtually imperative" that the Security Council take up the question of sanctions.

The United States, Japan and South Korea have concluded that North Korea's refusal to allow inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency to examine a nuclear reactor to see if spent fuel has been diverted to its weapons program is a sure sign that it is developing nuclear weapons.

Ending two days of talks on Saturday in Washington, officials from the the three nations said in a joint statement that the United Nations should "urgently consider an appropriate response, including sanctions." It is not yet clear whether China or Russia, both of which have veto power as permanent members of the Security Council, would support such a move.

Japan, which greatly fears the specter of nuclear weapons in Asia, has signaled that it might consider imposing economic sanctions even without a United Nations vote. Japan is an important source of hard currency for North Korea.

On Friday, the head of the U.N. nuclear monitoring agency told the Security Council that North Korea had already removed most of the fuel rods from the reactor in dispute at Yongbyon, including the 300 rods considered critical to determining whether weapons-grade plutonium has been diverted in the past.

On Saturday, South Korea made a point of declaring that it was prepared to repulse any military attack from the north. South Korean government officials met in Seoul to set up a task force to assess national readiness.

President Kim Young-sam, traveling in Russia, told reporters: "We and the United States are fully prepared and have enough military power ready to meet any emergencies." He said that "round-the-clock surveillance on the North's movements" was under way.