US prepares for nuclear stand-off with Pyongyang

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The Independent US

The United States may soon seek a UN Security Council resolution to impose a virtual international quarantine on North Korea to pressure its regime to abandon its nuclear weapons ambitions.

The United States may soon seek a UN Security Council resolution to impose a virtual international quarantine on North Korea to pressure its regime to abandon its nuclear weapons ambitions.

Frustration with North Korea's refusal to return to six-nation talks and growing alarm at signs that the country may be preparing to conduct an underground test is giving momentum to hawkish members of the US administration who want the issue taken to the council as soon as possible.

There was a bellicose reaction last night from North Korea. A Foreign Ministry spokesman said: "If the United States wants so much to drag the nuclear issue to the UN Security Council, it may do so. But we want to make clear we will regard sanctions as a declaration of war."

The New York Times says Washington is considering a resolution to permit foreign countries to intercept shipments of goods to North Korea that may include nuclear materials. This could entail boarding ships in international waters and the forcing down of aircraft bound for the country.

A resolution could, in theory, also help efforts by China to police movements of goods across its border with North Korea, considered a sieve for drugs, arms and counterfeit currency. But it is unclear whether China, a permanent member of the council, would support such a move.

China and South Korea have been anxious to avoid provoking a potentially dangerous confrontation with Pyongyang and have continued to emphasise re-starting the six-country talks that also involve Russia and the US. The talks have been stalled since June.

It was not clear last night how close the US administration may be to circulating a first draft of such a resolution at the UN. Diplomats in New York said there was no sign of such a text and nor had the idea been broached by US officials at UN headquarters with any other nations.

But tensions are rising in the region. Recent intelligence, mostly gleaned from satellite images, shows North Korea has closed its only nuclear generating plant, intimating its scientists may mean to remove materials useful in the making of nuclear arms. There have also been indications of new activity at a suspected nuclear weapons site, causing intelligence officials to speculate that an underground test may not be far away.

In February, the communist regime flatly asserted that it possessed nuclear weapons and said it would not attend a planned fourth round of the six-nation talks.

The South Korean government issued a warning of its own to Pyongyang yesterday. In language that was uncharacteristically terse, Foreign Minister Ban Ki Moon said that if "North Korea takes such reckless actions as conducting a nuclear test, it will further deepen its isolation and take itself on a road where its future will not be guaranteed".

If the US were to seek a UN resolution it would be likely at the same time to continue efforts to breathe new life into the six-party talks. The senior US envoy to the talks, Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill, is in the region now and held talks with counterparts in Seoul yesterday.

"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 in the talks," he said, and it was "not acceptable" for North Korea to refuse talks.

The sea, land and air quarantine being considered would be unlike a similar fence drawn around Cuba by the former American president John F Kennedy 43 years ago.

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