North Korea rattles the nuclear sabre

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The Independent Online
NORTH KOREA has for the first time issued a barely-veiled threat to use nuclear weapons in its escalating dispute with the US - after years of denying that its nuclear programme has any military applications. Meanwhile, new details have emerged of the lengths the secretive Communist state has gone to hide its nuclear capabilities from international inspectors.

In a statement carried by the government-run Korean Central News Agency, Pyongyang said on Thursday that continuing pressure from the US could force North Korea into a reaction 'a hundred times stronger, and it will be carried into practical action'. The KCNA statement said North Korea had 'an expedient to counter any other option of the United States. It is not the United States alone that has the expedient, and the option is not open only for a big power'.

Pyongyang appeared to be responding to a resolution passed by the US Senate earlier in the week which called on President Bill Clinton to return tactical nuclear weapons to South Korea. The US announced two years ago that it had removed all its battlefield nuclear weapons from South Korea as part of a process of warming relations between the two Koreas at that time.

But detente has since been frozen in Korea by Pyongyang's refusal to allow international inspections of its nuclear plants as called for under its membership of the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Although inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) were admitted to the Yongbyon nuclear plant in North Korea in 1992, as soon as they began detecting discrepancies between what they saw and what they were told by their hosts, problems began.

In late 1992 samples of plutonium given to the inspectors showed that more of the substance had been produced than North Korea was admitting. And in February 1993 US satellite pictures showed two new undeclared facilities built between a reactor for generating electricity and a reprocessing plant in Yongbyon, where more plutonium was suspected of being stored. North Korea refused the IAEA access to these plants, saying they were military secrets.

In August 1993 inspectors again went to Yongbyon, and, according to David Kyd, a spokesman at IAEA headquarters in Vienna, they were treated with contempt. 'They were kept kicking their heels in their living quarters all day, and then at 6pm, as it got dark, they were told they could do their work.' The inspectors were then led through the complex, with all lights turned off. Their guides carried torches, with which they illuminated the cameras set up earlier by the IAEA to monitor activities in the plant, and which needed their films and batteries replaced. Apart from these cameras, the IAEA inspectors could see nothing. 'It was low-level harassment of a fairly silly kind,' said Mr Kyd. 'But it taught us a lesson: unless you have a clear understanding nailed down, you don't send your people in.'

With the North Koreans now refusing to allow any IAEA inspections, tension is mounting ahead of an IAEA governors meeting on 21 February. If Pyongyang has not softened its stance by then the IAEA Director-General, Hans Blix, will be forced to declare the country in default of its obligations under the NPT. This would prompt the US to call for sanctions to be imposed on North Korea by the UN Security Council, an act which North Korea has threatened to respond to with war.