Pressure on N Korea alarms its neighbours: Tokyo and Seoul warn against sanctions on Pyongyang

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The Independent Online
JAPAN and South Korea, Washington's two principal allies in north- east Asia, have reacted with some nervousness to the sudden hardening of US rhetoric against North Korea, whose refusal to allow inspection of its nuclear facilities has heightened fears that it is seeking to develop nuclear weapons.

President Bill Clinton yesterday warned North Korea that it would not be allowed to develop nuclear weapons, and that any attack on the South would be 'an attack on the United States'. He added that this was 'a very grave issue for the US'.

The North Korean question was the main theme of private talks near Seoul at the weekend between the South Korean President, Kim Young Sam, and the visiting Japanese Prime Minister, Morihiro Hosokawa. Yesterday Mr Hosokawa said they had agreed to try to resolve the issue through dialogue rather than international sanctions.

'Although I do not know the direction of (United Nations) sanctions against North Korea relating to its nuclear problem, we agreed it is important to try to solve the issue through dialogue as far as possible,' said Mr Hosokawa. The UN Security Council is expected shortly to consider renewed calls for action against Pyongyang, which has obstructed inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency since January and halted all dealings with the agency in September. The North Koreans insist the matter should be resolved bilaterally with the US.

For all its forthright language, the Clinton administration is unsure how to proceed, fearful of boxing the North into a corner where it might feel it has no choice but to lash out. 'They're perhaps the most isolated regime in the world, with enormous economic problems, trying to decide what direction to take,' Mr Clinton said yesterday.

Playing on these uncertainties, Pyongyang has warned that threatened economic sanctions to force it to comply with UN rules would be regarded as an aggressive act, to which it would respond in kind.

South Korea and Japan believe if sanctions fail, they will signal weakness to Pyongyang, while if they worsen the country's economic plight, they could prompt desperate retaliation. The US State Department has been holding informal talks in New York with North Korean diplomats. A 'package deal' has been discussed in which Pyongyang, in exchange for abandoning its nuclear weapons programme and allowing inspections, would gain US diplomatic recognition, the cancellation of joint US military exercises with South Korea and a formal treaty ending the Korean War.

The US Defense Secretary, Les Aspin, agreed in Seoul last week to postpone an announcement of joint exercises next spring, but an official stressed the military threat from North Korea, saying the allies should guard against a build-up of conventional forces near the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) dividing the Korean peninsula. Since his return, there have been reports of US cruise missiles being targeted on Pyongyang's nuclear installations.

Neither situation is new, however. The movement of North Korea's troops towards the DMZ has been going on for three years, while the co-ordinates of its nuclear sites were almost certainly programmed into US missiles long ago.

KYONGJU, South Korea - Mr Hosokawa apologised yesterday to Koreans on national television for their suffering under Japanese colonial rule, AP reports.

Anti-Japanese activists said he stopped short of recognising Japan's 1910-1945 colonial rule of Korea as an illegal act of aggression.