North Korea places troops on alert

NORTH KOREA was reported yesterday to have put its forces on alert and stepped up military training as members of the United Nations Security Council studied a report from its nuclear agency which stated that Pyongyang was hiding plutonium. The report heightened fears that the secretive Communist nation is building a nuclear weapon.

'North Korea has recently put its troops on alert,' the South Korean Information Minister, Oh In Hwan, said at the end of a special meeting of security-related cabinet ministers. 'It is examining its emergency communication lines, intensifying military training and increasing air defence facilities.' North Korea was restricting travel by its citizens.

Seoul newspapers, quoting an unnamed Chinese businessman who had travelled to Pyongyang, said the North had ordered its citizens to prepare for war. Maps showing key South Korean targets had been distributed and the authorities had implemented a 10-hour blackout and massive civil- defence drills in Pyongyang.

The North Korean official news agency said yesterday that tensions were becoming more grave by the hour and the US would be held responsible if 'the situation develops to an irrevocable stage'.

Security Council members were yesterday holding private discussions on a draft resolution calling on North Korea to submit to full nuclear inspection, which is expected to come to a vote next week. The motion does not mention economic sanctions, which would be difficult to apply to the isolated regime without the co-operation of China, but refers to unspecified further action if Pyongyang does not comply. North Korea, describing sanctions as 'a declaration of war', has threatened to withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty if they are imposed.

'We have samples indicating there must be more plutonium than they (the North Koreans) say,' said Hans Blix, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). When the agency's inspectors visited a nuclear reprocessing plant in Yongbyon after months of international pressure, they found seals had been broken and monitoring cameras had ceased to operate, and were barred from taking further samples of nuclear material.

North Korea claims it has produced only one batch of plutonium at the plant, but Mr Blix disputed this. If there is a 'second batch there could be over 10kg (22lb) of plutonium', he said. Experts say this is enough to make two nuclear bombs. He did not know if North Korea had the technology to make a nuclear weapon. 'What raises concern is the production of plutonium.'

President Kim Young Sam of South Korea is due to arrive in China today from Japan, seeking joint diplomatic action on the nuclear question. Earlier this week his forces were put on alert. But Washington, Seoul and Tokyo yesterday showed little enthusiasm for a Russian proposal to hold an international conference on North Korea, saying the UN was the best forum for resolving the issue.

President Clinton, who dispatched Patriot anti-missile missiles to South Korea this week, said on Thursday night that he was considering further options. 'The situation in Korea is serious and we have responded in a serious way,' he said. The US has 36,000 troops in South Korea and the Defense Secretary, William Perry, said Washington was considering strengthening its presence as a precaution.

(Photograph omitted)