UN whispers its wrath over Kim

WESTERN and Asian nations should be asking themselves whether their appeasement of China over the Korean nuclear issue was worthwhile.

After all, North Korean President Kim Il-sung will not visit Beijing in the wake of his counterpart in Seoul, Kim Young-sam, and no top Chinese officials are planning to visit Pyongyang.

The United Nations Security Council (UNSC) laboured mightily only to bring forth a mouse on March 31.

It should have responded to North Korea's nuclear intransigence with a unanimous resolution - but China said ''no'', it would only approve a statement by the UNSC President.

The UNSC President should have made it clear there would be no alternative to applying tough economic sanctions on North Korea, unless it allowed the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to fully inspect the North's seven declared nuclear installations.

But China said ''no'', there must be no threats, only dialogue.

After a year of diplomatic procrastination, the UNSC statement should have at least set a deadline for North Korea to fulfil the pledges made with the IAEA and the United States on February 15.

But China said ''no'', there should be no deadlines either.

So, with a timidity of which even a mouse might be ashamed, the UNSC merely called upon North Korea to meet its inspection obligations and to honour its commitments under the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NNPT).

As the US and its allies appeased both China and North Korea, the most significant reaction came from the North Korean UNSC delegate, who immediately rejected the President's statement as he walked out of the council chamber.

In a dictatorship, lowly diplomats usually consult the dictator before taking a policy position.

Presumably the Great Leader had anticipated in advance that the UNSC would not do anything to disturb or discourage North Korea's policy of intransigence.

That policy has been on further display this past week. On the one hand, the North Koreans suggested that the US should drop its requirement that the North-South dialogue be resumed before any US-North Korea talks take place.

On the other, North Korean propaganda resumed its campaign calling for the resignation of the US puppet, Kim Young-sam.

Perhaps no South Korean bureaucrat dared tell his President that the North was demanding his departure, because President Kim Young-sam responded to this outrageous piece of North Korean effrontery with the most abject example yet of South Korean appeasement.

It was announced that, on President Kim Young-sam's orders, the South would not, after all, grant asylum to the North Korean loggers who have fled from the de facto North Korean gulag in Russia, and asked for asylum from the South.

''The government is not accepting them in order not to get on the nerves of North Korea,'' the presidential spokesman said.

Clearly, North Korean nerves are made of sterner stuff.

Its propaganda barrage this week has been that war on the Korean peninsula may break out at any time, and that today's situation resembles 1950 prior to the outbreak of the Korean War.

Immediately, the most important consequence of North Korean intransigence, and the diplomatic timidity with which it has been handled, is the impact it will have on lingering efforts to prevent nuclear proliferation.

After a year of diplomatic dithering, vis-a-vis North Korea, neither the US nor the UNSC has yet got around to insisting that IAEA inspectors also visit two undeclared but suspect sites at Yongbyon in North Korea.

Next year the NNPT itself has to be renewed or renegotiated.

The loss of NNPT and IAEA prestige, as a result of North Korea's brinkmanship, and probable nuclear proliferation, hardly provides a compelling reason for NNPT extension.

Apart from this crucial global issue, the other important consequence of the March 31 statement is the firm spotlight which it places upon China's role regarding North Korea.

For many, mostly those with a dovish outlook, the great gain from the UNSC statement was that China was finally ''on board'', in the sense that it had at last taken a position requiring North Korea to permit inspections, thereby implicitly opposing Pyongyang's pursuit of nuclear weaponry.

At least, it is hoped that this means that China will not oppose sanctions whenever they are ultimately applied.

At best, China should be able to apply pressure in Pyongyang to reduce or even end North Korean intransigence.

In line with these expectations, it was assumed that Beijing would try to get the Great Leader to visit once his 82nd birthday celebrations were over.

There were also hints that Beijing would be sending a high level delegation to Pyongyang, perhaps for the birthday on April 15.

China has all along pleaded that its influence is not as great as imagined, and this seemed to be borne out when various sources indicated that Kim Il-sung had refused a train trip (he never flies) to Beijing in the near future.

Whether China had earlier pressed its invitation was not clear. What was very clear was the Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman's revelation that no high-ranking Chinese delegation would fete the Great Leader's birthday.

This may mean that China is as perplexed as everyone else by North Korea's headstrong ways.

The fact remains that China can bring pressure to bear if it so chooses.

China's delegate at the Security Council, Chen Jian, claimed that China has a ''consistent position that the Security Council should not be used in a way to put pressure on countries''.

Given that China usually does not shrink from applying pressure to countries such as France, Britain and the United States when it considers its interests are at stake, this is an absurd assertion.

It suggests that even now China does not see an absolutely vital interest in preventing North Korea from going nuclear.

Since China supplies about 70 per cent of North Korea's oil and food imports, if China lacks the will to apply its clout, other nations will have to ask themselves why.

China's credibility as well as its motives are now on the line.

It has put all its weight - and its UN veto - behind a drive to treat the North Koreans gently.

If, as a reward, North Korea remains recalcitrant, the US and other nations will have to re-examine their - so far - benign estimate of China's motives.