President Clinton's national security advisers today defended their recommendation that economic sanctions against North Korea be lifted immediately in response to the isolated regime's agreement to forgo missile testing for the time being.
North Korea's pledge deserves to be rewarded with a positive gesture by the United States, White House national security adviser Samuel R. "Sandy" Berger said.
"In any negotiation, any discussion, obviously the question is what is the reciprocal benefit to the North Koreans, and the reciprocal benefit would be some easing of economic sanctions," Berger told reporters here, where Clinton finished up three days of meetings late Monday with other leaders in the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum. The waiver would not affect curbs on military and so-called dual-use technology.
The APEC session was dominated by discussion of how to respond to the brutal crackdown in the Indonesian province of East Timor following its vote two weeks ago to separate from Indonesia. Monday afternoon, Clinton met with East Timorese human rights activist Jose Ramos-Horta, a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize. By the summit's end, the air of desperation that had marked discussions at the beginning was partially lifted by Indonesian President B.J. Habibie's announcement that he will accept an international peacekeeping force for East Timor, and Berger indicated that Jakarta's pledge, like North Korea's, will be rewarded.
The North Korea breakthrough in talks in Berlin on Sunday, the apparent retreat by Indonesia on East Timor and a partial thaw in relations with China combined to leave Clinton in a stronger position on Asia-Pacific issues than when he arrived in Auckland. He was to leave this morning for Queenstown, on New Zealand's South Island, for a day of tourism.
Clinton has not approved the waiver of economic sanctions for North Korea, although his aides said they will recommend this to him. The likely waiver would be in effect as long as talks with Pyongyang continue, and as long as North Korea avoids provocative steps like a missile test.
Clinton can waive economic sanctions unilaterally, without congressional approval. Knowing the potential sensitivity of the issue, a senior White House official said, the administration has been consulting heavily with Congress during the review.
Defending his sanctions recommendation, Berger rejected a suggestion that waiving economic sanctions rewards North Korea for not doing something that it should not have been threatening to do in the first place.
"Let's understand here that North Korea is not bound by any international agreements" with respect to missile testing, Berger said. At the same time, he added, the United States and Asian allies would have had a strongly negative response if North Korea had gone ahead with the test. North Korea test-fired a missile that flew over Japan in August 1998, setting off shock waves across the region.
As a practical matter, the likely lifting of economic sanctions will have a modest effect on the impoverished state.
Meanwhile, if Indonesia follows through on its promise to allow an Australian-led peace force, Berger said, Clinton is ready to reverse his order last week halting U.S. military aid and sales to Jakarta, as well as the recommendation that the International Monetary Fund and World Bank withhold support. White House national economic adviser Gene Sperling noted, however, that the IMF had concerns about suspected corruption in the Jakarta government and some of the country's top banks even before the East Timor violence. The Asian Development Bank today deferred approval of about $500 million in loans to Indonesia because of those concerns.
Administration officials acknowledge that the recent advances on Asian issues are incomplete. Clinton aides say they need demonstrable proof that Indonesia is sincere about its willingness to allow a U.N-sanctioned force to reverse East Timor's plunge into violence. The administration did not reach an agreement here for China's membership in the World Trade Organization, although they said negotiations were put back on track.
And the North Korea agreement on missile testing is itself a tentative first step. North Korea agreed to halt testing in the midst of broader talks about a reassessment of U.S.-North Korea relations. For years, with few exceptions, there essentially has been no U.S. relationship with Pyongyang, save for sporadic talks over discrete issues of disagreement. But Clinton has appointed his former defense secretary, William J. Perry, to carry out a review of North Korea policy.
At summit's end, Sperling and other administration officials touted progress at the meeting on a host of market-opening initiatives, among them measures to phase out export subsidies for agricultural products and agreement to resist the imposition of taxes on electronic commerce.
Staff writer Clay Chandler contributed to this report.
CAPTION: President Clinton speaks to reporters in Auckland concerning the situation in East Timor as national security advisor Samuel R. Berger, right, watches.