N Korea toes nuclear line again

NORTH KOREA last night suspended its threatened withdrawal from the nuclear Non- Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Pyongyang announced that it 'has decided unilaterally to suspend as long as it considers necessary . . . its withdrawal' from the 1970 treaty.

The statement did not make clear how long the suspension would last. But it said North Korea had agreed to the following principles: assurances against the threat and use of force, including nuclear weapons; support for peaceful reunification of Korea; peace and security in a nuclear-free Korean peninsula, including 'full-scope safeguards'; mutual respect for other's sovereignty; and non-interference in other's internal affairs.

The country recently test launched a medium-range missile that could hit Tokyo and other populated areas of Japan with chemical and possibly nuclear warheads, a Japanese government source said yesterday.

North Korea announced on 12 March it was withdrawing from the NPT after refusing repeated demands from the International Atomic Energy Agency to allow inspectors access to sites suspected of being involved in nuclear weapons production.

Western intelligence agencies have suspected for some time that the isolated and economically struggling state has been working on developing a nuclear bomb and a means to deliver it. According to yesterday's report in Japan, a Rodong-1 missile, which has a range of 1,000km (625 miles) and is an adaptation of the Russian Scud C missile, was fired out over the Sea of Japan at the end of last month.

The Defence Agency has not officially confirmed the launch, but has admitted that two North Korean ships were spotted in the Sea of Japan on 29 May. On Thursday Shigeru Hatakeyama, the Defence Agency's policy chief, told a parliamentary committee that Japan was defenceless against a missile attack, but was considering acquiring Patriot missiles which were used by the US in the Gulf war against Scud missiles fired by Iraq.

Kang Sok Ju, North Korea's Deputy Foreign Minister, has had a series of meetings this month at the US mission to the UN in New York with Robert Gallucci, the Assistant Secretary of State for political and military affairs. After talks on Thursday ended 'inconclusively', the two sides agreed to meet again on Friday for a final attempt to avert Pyongyang's withdrawal. Mr Kang hinted that a compromise might be worked out in which his country would stay in the NPT in exchange for certain concessions from the US.

Until recently China has acted as North Korea's protector, but rising tension along their border, in which a number of Chinese have been shot dead by North Korean troops, has weakened Peking's friendship.