North Korea threatens US with 'total war'

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America's intelligence agencies and those of its allies in north-east Asia were trying to establish last night whether North Korea had fulfilled its threat to fire up an atomic reactor they believe to be capable of producing weapons-grade plutonium.

America's intelligence agencies and those of its allies in north-east Asia were trying to establish last night whether North Korea had fulfilled its threat to fire up an atomic reactor they believe to be capable of producing weapons-grade plutonium.

In a war of words yesterday, Donald Rumsfeld, the US Defence Secretary, described the Communist government as a "terrorist regime". Pyongyang warned there would be "total war" if America launched a pre-emptive attack on its nuclear facilities. But the White House shrugged off North Korea's comments. "The United States is very prepared with robust plans for any contingencies," Ari Fleischer, the White House spokesman, said.

The Americans and their regional allies were closely scrutinising a statement issued in English by the North Korean Foreign Ministry late on Wednesday that appeared to suggest its ageing 5MW nuclear reactor had been started up. The North Koreans, starved of fuel, say this is to generate electricity; US intelligence believes it can produce plutonium for warheads, for North Korea's own use or for sale.

The statement said North Korea "is now putting the operation of its nuclear facilities for the production of electricity on a normal footing after their restart". Experts were uncertain whether this meant that they were in the process of restarting it – which they have been for weeks – or whether it was now fired up.

South Korean analysts said the words were ambivalent, as Pyongyang doubtless intended them to be. A Korean-language statement monitored by South Korea's Yonhap news agency referred only to "our process to restart nuclear facilities for generating electricity and normalise their operation".

The issue is complicated by recent data from US spy satellites, which appears to show trucks taking on cargo near a storage house at North Korea's Yongbyon nuclear complex. What is not known is whether they were removing fuel rods for reprocessing or engaging in a cameo for the spy cameras to heighten tensions at a time when Washington is preoccupied with trying to win support for war on Iraq.

As the Americans tried to establish what to make of the statement, the rhetoric, always fierce, reached still more operatic levels. The North's state-run Rodung Sinmun newspaper said "total war" would result if the US "makes a surprise attack on our peaceful facilities".

The Americans insist they have no plans to invade, although there have been suggestions – floated and then retracted by South Korea – that a military strike against the nuclear plants has been discussed. But the official American position is that it favours a diplomatic solution. This has failed to convince Pyongyang, which clearly fears it will be next in Washington's crosshairs if the war on Iraq is successful.

The region is becoming edgier. Japan's Kyodo news agency cited government sources saying Japan might deploy two destroyers in case North Korea ran a missile test. The Americans have also indicated they might beef up their naval presence off the peninsula.

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