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Seoul army on the alert over threat from north

SOUTH KOREA put its armed forces on alert yesterday after Friday's announcement by North Korea that it was withdrawing from the Nuclear Weapons Non- Proliferation Treaty (NPT). Unconfirmed reports said communist North Korea had moved troops up to the border between the two countries, while both sides issued defiant statements.

North Korea's 1.1 million- strong armed forces have been on a 'semi-war' footing since last Tuesday, in response to the continuing Team Spirit joint military exercises by US and South Korean troops in the south. South Korea's Defence Ministry said the Defence Minister, Kwon Young Hae, had ordered the south's 650,000 troops to be put on alert as a 'precaution' against any provocation from the north.

Pyongyang withdrew from the NPT rather than submit to international inspections of its nuclear facilities, as demanded by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). The move has further strenghtened suspicions that the secretive state is well on the way to developing nuclear weapons.

In Tokyo, it was reported that Korean-language radio broadcasts to the peninsula had been blocked. Diplomats in Pyongyang said they had been told they could not travel outside the city without permission, and that local residents had been told not to talk to foreigners. South Korea's Yonhap news agency said North Korea had stopped issuing visas to foreigners, and that a routine UN delegation had been denied permission to enter the country. These moves appear to be an attempt by North Korea to stop its own population finding out that it has decided to leave the NPT.

South Korea's President, Kim Young Sam, said yesterday that North Korea was 'courting isolation from the international community'. The matter was discussed in the UN Security Council on Friday night, with most members highly critical of North Korea's move. 'It is viewed by most of the governments of countries represented on the Security Council as a very serious matter,' said David Hannay, the British Ambassador.

China, virtually the only country which maintains semi-cordial links with the maverick communist state, prevented the council from making any strong statement attacking Pyongyang. The US has indicated that it will push for sanctions to be imposed on North Korea.

North Korean radio yesterday warned the US of grave consequences should sanctions be imposed. According to a report in the Joongang Daily News, a national paper published in Seoul, 'high-level' sources in South Korea's government said Pyongyang had mobilised troops on the border with South Korea. If this is true, it will be the first time since 1983 that the north has massed troops on its border.

An announcement is expected tomorrow about the convening of a special board meeting of the IAEA in Vienna, probably at the end of the week.

The North Koreans signed the NPT in December 1985. They concluded an agreement on the safeguards protocol at the beginning of last year, which was ratified in April. They provided an inventory of all facilities on 4 May last year. The IAEA has performed six inspections since then, and concluded there were 'significant inconsistencies' between what was asked for and what was given, an IAEA spokesman said.