North Korea pulls out of nuke deal

By Christopher Torchia, Seoul

President George W Bush talked by phone yesterday with Chinese President Jiang Zemin, who voiced disappointment with North Korea’s decision. South Korea called the nuclear standoff a matter of life and death.

Yesterday’s development sparked alarm around the world while the US said the move, although a cause for concern, was not unexpected.

The UN International Atomic Energy Agency watchdog sought to reassure worried governments it did not see North Korea’s decision to withdraw from the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty as raising the stakes in the crisis and felt there was still room for diplomacy to work.

In making the announcement Pyongyang said it had no intention of developing nuclear weapons and it sent two more diplomats to join the two already holding talks with Washington’s former UN ambassador, Bill Richardson.

But the North warned the US not to take military action against it. Pyongyang said a “new Korean War will finally lead to the Third World War” and that the North could hold its own in a “fire-to-fire standoff”. The comment was distributed by the official North Korean news agency in English.

North Korea’s UN ambassador Pak Gil Yon, at a rare news conference at the United Nations, said the US offer earlier this week to hold talks on his country’s nuclear program without being willing to engage in full negotiations showed a lack of sincerity.

The ambassador also told reporters Pyongyang would view it as a declaration of war if the UN Security Council were to impose economic sanctions against it.

“We consider now any kind of economic sanctions to be taken by the Security Council as a declaration of war,” he said.

But Vice President Dick Cheney, in keeping with the US desire not to inflame tensions on the Korean peninsula, said while the decision to pull out of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty was a serious concern, the move was not unexpected.

The IAEA also sought to calm the crisis.

“There is still an opportunity for diplomacy. It’s not over until it’s over,” an IAEA spokesman said in Vienna.

IAEA chief Mohamed El Baradei, in Washington to meet with top US officials, called on North Korea to rethink its decision to pull out of the treaty.

“I strongly urge the DPRK (North Korea to reverse its decision and to seek a diplomatic solution,” he said.

“This is the only way to address North Korea’s security, and other concerns,” El Baradei said. “A challenge to the integrity of that treaty may constitute a threat to international peace and security.”

El Baradei planned meetings with Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Adviser Condoleeza Rice.

“We need to articulate what would be the next step if North Korea were to show good behaviour” he said. President Bush and Chinese President Jiang Zemin said the situation was a cause for concern and agreed to work together on it.

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