N Korea softens on Seoul war talk

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TWO AMERICAN ships with Patriot anti-missile batteries on board docked in South Korea yesterday to reinforce Seoul's military preparedness against Communist North Korea. But over the weekend, Pyongyang appeared to be moderating its warlike rhetoric directed against the South and the United States, and fired an important official who had said Seoul would be turned into a 'sea of fire' by North Korean missiles.

The Patriots were shipped from the US by the USS Meteor and the USS Comet, and were escorted by South Korean navy vessels into the harbour of Pusan under tight security. Camouflaged trucks were later seen being driven off the ships. US officials said between three and six batteries were delivered - each battery has eight launchers and 64 missiles.

President Bill Clinton ordered the Patriot missiles to be dispatched to South Korea last month, after Pyongyang again obstructed international inspections of its nuclear plants. The North is strongly suspected of developing nuclear weapons, and for more than a year has been blocking access by inspectors of the International Atomic Energy Agency to parts of its nuclear facilities.

As the conflict over the failed nuclear inspections escalated, North Korea mounted a hysterical propaganda campaign against alleged 'provocations' by the South and its US allies, and threatened to go to war at a moment's notice. Although US military intelligence detected no significant build-up of North Korean forces along the border, the joint US-South Korean military alliance was put on a state of alert.

The tension reached its peak when North Korea's chief negotiator with the South stormed out of a meeting held last month on the border at Panmunjom, vowing to turn Seoul into a 'sea of fire'. But over the weekend Kim Il Sung, the supreme leader of North Korea, who was celebrating his 82nd birthday, said the comments were inappropriate. A news report later said the official, Park Young Su, would be relieved of his post.

Mr Kim's apparent change of heart may have been prompted by pressure from his one remaining ally, China. Although last month China prevented the UN Security Council from threatening sanctions against North Korea, Peking appears to have been sending strong messages to Pyongyang to compromise with the international community. Chinese patience with North Korea appears to be wearing thin. Pointedly, no Chinese delegation was sent for Mr Kim's birthday, and plans for a visit by the Great Leader to China later this year have been quietly dropped.

(Photograph omitted)