Donald Rumsfeld, the US Defence Secretary, bluntly warned North Korea yesterday not to use Washington's focus on Iraq to press ahead with its own nuclear weapons, saying America had ample resources to wage two wars at once.
Delivering the Bush administration's bluntest comments yet after the announcement by Pyongyang that it was removing United Nations monitoring cameras and seals at a mothballed nuclear reactor, Mr Rumsfeld stated baldly: "If they do, it would be a mistake.
"We are capable of fighting two major regional foreign conflicts," he insisted at a Pentagon briefing. "We are capable of winning decisively in one and swiftly defeating in the ... other. Let there be no doubt about it."
As Mr Rumsfeld spoke, Colin Powell, the Secretary of State, was completing consultations with South Korea, China, Japan and Russia over the growing crisis with North Korea.
The North said at the weekend it was reactivating its plant at Yongbyon to generate electricity. But South Korea and the US dismissed the explanation, saying that 8,000 spent fuel rods were of no use for power generation but could serve for the extraction of plutonium. Joe Biden, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said Pyongyang would be able to manufacture "five or six" new bombs within months.
Mr Rumsfeld said: "They don't need a nuclear power plant, their power grid couldn't absorb that. What's going on in that country is a tragedy."
Unlike its stance on Iraq, Washington has said that it wants a peaceful resolution with North Korea. Pyongyang admitted in October it had a secret nuclear weapons programme, involving enriched uranium. In response, the United States halted fuel shipments to the impoverished country.