North Korea Warns the U.S. to Negotiate or Risk 'Catastrophe'
By HOWARD W. FRENCH
SEOUL, South Korea, Dec. 24 "” North Korea warned today of an "uncontrollable catastrophe" unless the United States agrees to a negotiated solution to a standoff over its nuclear energy and weapons programs.
The statement came as a stiff preemptive rebuff to a conciliation-minded, newly-elected president in South Korea, and a warning to other countries that their efforts to mediate the crisis will be futile.
"There is no need for any third party to meddle in the nuclear issue on the peninsula," said North Korea's ruling-party newspaper, the Rodong Sinmun.
Using the initials for the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, North Korea's official name, the newspaper continued: "The issue should be settled between the D.P.R.K. and the U.S., the parties responsible for it. If the U.S. persistently tries to internationalize the pending issue between the D.P.R.K. and the U.S. in a bid to flee from its responsibility, it will push the situation to an uncontrollable catastrophe."
Going even further, the North Korean defense minister, Kim Il Chol, warned of "merciless punishment" to the United States if it pursues a confrontational approach. "The U.S. hawks are arrogant enough to groundlessly claim that North Korea has pushed ahead with a `nuclear program,' bringing its hostile policy toward the D.P.R.K. to an extremely dangerous phase," the state-run Korean Central News Agency quoted Mr. Kim as saying.
Some analysts here saw the defense minister's statement as a defiant response to comments by his American counterpart, Donald H. Rumsfeld, who said on Monday that the United States had enough military power in reserve to prevail over North Korea in the event a conflict with the country should occur in the midst of a war with Iraq.
"We're capable of winning decisively in one and swiftly defeating in the case of the other, and let there be no doubt about it," Mr. Rumsfeld said.
The North's comments come as Pyongyang accelerates its takeover of nuclear fuel and reactors that were placed under international surveillance under a 1994 agreement with the United States following a crisis remarkably similar to the current one.
Today, South Korean officials said that North Korea had begun taking steps to reactivate a 5-megawat nuclear reactor that had been mothballed under the eight-year-old agreement, the so-called Agreed Framework. North Korea completed the removal of the last International Atomic Energy Agency seals and disabling surveillance cameras at a fuel fabrication plant in Yongbyon, South Korean officials said Tuesday.
The facility is technically known as a research reactor, but all along, Western arms control experts have said that its true purpose of the plant is to produce plutonium for the country's nuclear weapons program.
"There are varying estimates on how long it would take them to reprocess the spent fuel, but they probably have plans to do it a lot faster than outsiders imagine "” and will do so if their equipment works," said an American official who has studied North Korea's nuclear programs for years. "Here are a few of the ugly signposts we might whiz pass: asking the inspectors to leave, starting up the reprocessing line, finalizing their withdrawal from the Nonproliferation Treaty, and declaring themselves a nuclear power "” with a "Korean bomb" intended to protect the whole of the Korean people by keeping the Americans from starting a war."
Reflecting the sharp increase in distrust between the United States and South Korea amid a series of major demonstrations against the presence of 37,000 American troops in the country, the official added, "this will cause some secret shivers of pride amongst some in the South."
Both South Korea's outgoing president, Kim Dae Jung, and the man who will succeed him in February, Roh Moo Hyun, spent most of the day struggling to contain the crisis with North Korea, which threatens to nullify the engagement policies embraced by both men.
"South Korea, the United States, Japan, China, Russia and the European Union are all strongly calling on North Korea to abandon the nuclear program, but the North is not listening now," Mr. Kim said during a cabinet meeting. Amid concerns over tensions between Washington and Seoul, Mr. Kim appeared to draw closer to the American position on North, saying there could be no major cooperation between the two countries unless Pyongyang agreed to international controls on its weapons of mass destruction. "We can never join hands in the development of nuclear weapons, missiles and other weapons," Mr. Kim said.
The incoming president, Mr. Roh, meanwhile, spent much of the day meeting with ambassadors of countries that have been involved in the region's crisis. "The president-elect requested cooperation from those concerned countries to help resolve the North's nuclear issue peacefully," said Mr. Roh's spokesman, Lee Nak-hyun.
Mr. Roh also spoke by telephone to the Japanese prime minister, Junichiro Koizumi. The two leaders "agreed to continue close cooperation among Japan, the United States and South Korea to bring about a peaceful solution to nuclear and other security issues regarding North Korea," the ministry said in a statement.
Recently, China, which has been North Korea's closest allies since the two countries fought the United States during the Korean War from 1950 to 1953, has also expressed concern over the country's reported pursuit of nuclear weapons, and today urged Washington and Pyongyang to negotiate a solution of the crisis that would leave the Korean peninsula free from nuclear weapons.
"We hope relevant sides can proceed in the overall interest of safeguarding peace and stability on the peninsula and reach a resolution to the issue through dialogue," the Chinese Foreign Ministry said in a statement.