Japan and South Korea both issued unusually stern condemnations of the decision, which further strengthens fears about the secretive Communist state's nuclear weapons programme. The United States also strongly deplored the decision and said it was consulting with its allies on how to react.
Hitting out at the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) for demanding more access to North Korean nuclear facilities, Pyongyang said it was withdrawing from the treaty in a 'well- justified self-defensive measure against the nuclear war manoeuvres of the secretariat of the IAEA'. The government statement attacked US 'nuclear threats against North Korea', and demanded that the US military immediately suspend joint military exercises being held with the South Korean army.
A British Foreign Office spokesman said it was too early to consider sanctions against North Korea but added that Britain, one of the three guarantor powers of the NPT, would consider what steps to take with other signatory states. The spokesman declined to say whether Britain would support sanctions against North Korea over its refusal to allow international inspectors into some nuclear installations but said the UN Security Council would consider the move.
This week, Kim Jong Il, the son and anointed heir to President Kim Il Sung, announced that his country was on a 'semi-war footing' because of allegedly aggressive postures by the US, South Korea and the IAEA. Yesterday the vice-minister of foreign affairs, Kang Sok Ju, stepped up this combative rhetoric, saying that North Korea 'will answer strong-arm action with self-defensive measures, and military sanctions with self-reliant defence capabilities'.
The new hard line adopted by North Korea is seen by some as brinkmanship to test the resolve of the recently installed presidents Clinton in Washington and Kim Young Sam in Seoul.
But with the North's economy on its knees, there is concern that Kim Jong Il might want to use an external threat to rally the country around his unpopular leadership. Tension has increased on the Korean peninsula, where only a year ago the two sides signed a non-aggression treaty and talk of reunification was in the air. This year the US military in South Korea quietly reinforced its positions along the demilitarised zone which divides the peninsula.
The Japanese Foreign Minister, Michio Watanabe, said yesterday that North Korea's decision to withdraw from the treaty was a 'challenge to the nuclear non-proliferation regime itself and will have grave repercussions'. The South Korean foreign ministry said it was 'extremely concerned' and added that 'the North's professed reasons for pulling out of the NPT convince no one. This only heightens suspicion that it is developing nuclear arms.'
North Korea has been under pressure for weeks to allow inspectors from the IAEA to visit two sites in its nuclear research complex which might show that plutonium is being produced and stockpiled. Plutonium is a key ingredient in atomic bombs, but Pyongyang has denied that it has produced more than a few grammes, for research.
However, minute samples already given to the IAEA have suggested that larger quantities of plutonium have been produced secretly. For this reason the IAEA is demanding greater access to the nuclear research facilities in Yongbyon, 60 miles north of Pyongyang.
The issue is now likely to come before the UN Security Council, where the position of China will be crucial. China, itself a signatory to the treaty, expressed concern yesterday about North Korea's action. 'China has consistently supported the de-nuclearisation of the Korean peninsula and hopes that the situation in the Korean peninsula will continue to move towards relaxation and stability,' the Foreign Ministry said.
'As for problems that have cropped up at present, China holds that they should be settled properly through consultations in a manner conducive to the universality of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty,' it said.
Chinese diplomats said that Pyongyang had not consulted with China on its decision to withdraw from the treaty. Other diplomats said China is worried about North Korea's sabre-rattling, but finds it difficult to remonstrate out of residual loyalty to Pyongyang. China supplied North Korea with nuclear technology, and is the only country with influence on Pyongyang.