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Seoul says nuclear test will backfire on NKorea as US calls for talks

AFP | April 26 2005

South Korea warned Monday that any nuclear test would backfire disastrously on North Korea as Washington urged the Stalinist state to end its boycott and return to six-party talks aimed at ending the standoff.

As speculation mounted that Pyongyang could be moving towards its first ever nuclear test, South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki-Moon said the step would endanger North Korea's future.

The "reckless step ... would further deepen the North's own isolation and would mean moving onto a path where its future is not guaranteed," Ban said.

North Korea said three months ago that it possessed nuclear weapons for self-defence against a "hostile" United States and has asserted in the past that it was ready to give a "physical" demonstration of its claim.

Christopher Hill, the US assistant secretary of state for East Asia and Pacific Affairs, said that he was intent on getting North Korea to return to six-party talks during his visit to South Korea, China and Japan.

"What we are focusing on is the diplomatic track and the need to get the talks going and more importantly once they get going, to achieve progress," said Hill as he met with Ban on Monday.

"We are also focussing on the fact that we see North Korea stalling," he said. "We need to be very clear that it is unacceptable for them to stay out of the talks."

He declined to speculate on what steps might be taken if North Korea continued to snub the talks, which include the two Koreas, China, Japan, Russia and the United States.

But US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice warned last week that North Korea could be referred to the UN Security Council for possible sanctions.

North Korea said Monday it would react with a "do-or-die" attitude if the United States brought UN sanctions over the Stalinist state's nuclear programme.

"We make one thing clear: The DPRK will regard the sanctions as a declaration of war. We are fully ready to cope with everything in a do-or-die spirit and have already prepared all countermeasures against the sanctions," a foreign ministry spokesman said in a statement carried by KCNA news agency.

Hill heads to Beijing on Tuesday and Tokyo on Wednesday before his return to Seoul for further consultations on the standoff that started in October 2002 when Washington accused Pyongyang of running a clandestine nuclear programme based on enriched uranium.

That violated a 1994 agreement under which North Korea froze its nuclear ambitions in return for billions of dollars in energy aid.

Hill said over the weekend that all parties to the talks, with the exception of North Korea, were pushing for their resumption after three inconclusive rounds ended last June and were followed by North Korea's boycott of a fourth, scheduled for last September in Beijing.

South Korea has opposed using international pressure or sanctions against North Korea to break the stalemate, believing that cooperation and engagement will work better with the recalcitrant communist state.

Seoul has come out strongly against referring the issue to the United Nations, at least for now. However Hill, following talks with his counterpart, Deputy Foreign Minister Song Min-Soon, said Seoul and Washington saw eye-to-eye on the issue without elaborating.

North Korea has been raising the stakes over the standoff since it said on February 10 it possessed nuclear weapons and was pulling out of dialogue.

In early April, it shut down its only functioning nuclear reactor and said it planned to unload spent nuclear fuel from the plant and reprocess it into weapons-grade plutonium.

On Sunday, North Korea's military chief, vice marshall Kim Yong-Chun, said the communist country would "steadily bolster" its nuclear deterrent and US media reports said Pyongyang was planning a nuclear test.

The Wall Street Journal said Friday US satellites had spotted increased activity at North Korean sites where underground nuclear tests could be carried out.

However Moon Hee-Sang, the leader of South Korea's ruling Uri Party, said he was unaware of intelligence suggesting North Korea was preparing a test.

"There is no clear evidence that the North is preparing to test a nuclear weapon," Moon told journalists at a lunch briefing.

North Korea insists that it will only return to the six party talks when Washington offers inducements. The United States insists that North Korea attend talks unconditionally.