Tension rises as North Korea nuclear deal unravels

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North Korea banned UN weapons inspectors from its main nuclear complex today amid reports that it was also preparing for a mass testing of missiles at a disputed sea border.

The decision to stop the monitors throughout the Yongbyon centre is seen by analysts as a significant step towards jettisoning a deal to dismantle its atomic bomb programme. At the same time, Pyongyang accused South Korea of encroaching on its territory and warned that "decisive action" would be taken to counter the move.

Today's developments prompted the US Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice to say that Washington was "reviewing the situation". According to reports, an American surveillance satellite has detected preparations for the launch of up to ten missiles at the Chodo naval base.

Pyongyang has already barred UN inspectors from the plutonium-producing section of Yongbyon but continued allowing them to check on the shutdown status of other parts of the plant.

The North Koreans had carried out their first nuclear weapons test two years ago leading to international concern and an eventual disarmament pact between the country and the US, Russia, China, South Korea and Japan.

Pyongyang has been claiming, however, that the Americans had reneged on a promise to remove North Korea from a blacklist of states which are 'sponsors of terrorism'. Washington has countered that this could not be done until a system was properly in place to verify North Korean assurances that it was indeed dismantling its nuclear arms programme.

An US envoy, Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, held three days of talks in Pyongyang over the issue, but no details have emerged on the outcome of the meeting.

The International Atomic Energy Agency said yesterday "North Korea has informed agency inspectors in Yongbyon that it has stopped its disablement work agreed within the six party talks. Agency inspectors were informed that as a result of this decision, access to then facilities would not be permitted as of today". An IAEA official said in Vienna "the basic result of all this is that the IAEA will not know what the North Koreans will or will not do at the place."

North and South Korea are in dispute over waters off the west coast of the peninsula and there have been clashes between naval vessels of the two countries in 1999 and 2002. A North Korean navy statement yesterday claimed the South had violated the sea border and declared "there is always a limit to patience. The South Korean puppet army authorities would be well advised to think twice about what will happen if the warning and self-restraint of the North touch off resentment and lead to decisive action".

The head of South Korea's armed forces, General Kim Tae-Yong said in the capital, Seoul, that the missile tests may be part of what he called the North's project to develop a nuclear warhead to fit on a missile.

There is confusion over how much North Korea's leader Kim Jong-Il, who is said to have suffered a stroke in August, is in day to day control of the government. Yoo Ho-Yeol, of the Korea University in Seoul said " the reported missile launches appear to have a multiple purpose - increase pressure on the US in nuclear negotiations and show the outside world that the North's military is strong, despite concerns about leader Kim's health."

Robert Emerson, a security analyst specialising in chemical, biological and nuclear issues said "the North Koreans are trying to test the Americans and they are very keen to be taken off the blacklist. It is not likely that the North would be able to install nuclear warheads in the near future but there is always the risk of an exchange involving conventional weapons with the South."