The isolated Stalinist nation, which is believed to be close to developing nuclear weapons, withdrew on Friday from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which it signed two years ago. It appears to be trying to stir up an atmosphere of war hysteria to distract from its dispute with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which was demanding to inspect two military sites where production of weapons-grade plutonium is suspected.
North Korea declared a state of 'semi-war' last Wednesday, seizing upon annual joint military exercises by American and South Korean forces to claim an invasion could be imminent. The IAEA has been accused of colluding with Pyongyang's enemies, and North Korean forces have been moved closer to the demilitarised zone which divides the Korean peninsula.
A foreign resident of Pyongyang, interviewed by telephone from Peking, told Reuters news agency that the government had barred foreigners from entering the country and would let foreign residents leave but not return. 'The threat of war is taken very seriously,' he said. 'Things are very tense up here.' North Korean diplomats confirmed that even an eight-member United Nations aid delegation was refused entry last week.
Rumours were said to be rife that North Korea would be attacked around 25 March, the deadline set by the IAEA for allowing the inspections. Pyongyang had been blacked out every night since Saturday, the foreign resident said, and air raid sirens had blared out. North Koreans had been ordered by their work units to drill at night to prepare them for quick mobilisation.
Warlike words and actions by North Korea were commonplace until the late 1980s, but the collapse of communism and the withdrawal of economic aid by Moscow and Peking had forced Kim Il Sung's regime to take a more conciliatory tone in the past year or two. The start of a dialogue with South Korea, and Pyongyang's agreement two years ago to sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty, had reassured the world, but the past week has shown that the hermit state has lost none of its unpredictability.
President Kim Young Sam's new government in Seoul sought to avoid the danger of an accidental conflict, saying it would not try to isolate or punish Pyongyang for rejecting the NPT. Mr Kim, however, stopped all economic contacts until North Korea reversed its decision, and appealed to Russia and China to use their influence. Peking is almost Pyongyang's only friend, while the former Soviet Union was one of the North's biggest arms providers.
The crisis is also testing the Clinton administration in Washington, which does not yet have its nuclear non-proliferation team in place and is still working on a long-term strategy of how to deal with countries that want to make nuclear weapons. The options range from high-level diplomacy to sanctions, and to air strikes to remove the offending weapons plants.
In the meantime, the administration has not given up hope that North Korea can be persuaded to reverse its decision to pull out of the Non-Proliferation Treaty. In theory, a 90-day period must elapse after a state withdraws and before it is relieved of its obligations under the treaty.
The new US Defense Secretary, Les Aspin, inherited a set of contingency plans from the Bush administration for bombing North Korea's nuclear sites. Most officials who could be counted in the Bush days as advocates of air strikes to solve the nuclear proliferation problem are now out of government, and are slowly being replaced by opponents of such a policy.Reuse content