Seoul forces put on alert as tension with North grows: UN now takes up issue of nuclear inspections

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PRESIDENT Kim Young Sam of South Korea put his armed forces on alert yesterday after North Korea threatened to turn Seoul into a 'sea of fire' as tension over the North's nuclear programme mounted.

But despite the increase in warlike rhetoric on both sides, South Korea and its main ally, the United States, were careful to leave the isolated Communist regime of Kim Il Sung with a possible escape route from the showdown.

On Monday the International Atomic Energy Agency said its inspectors had been blocked from carrying out full inspections during their visit to North Korea earlier this month. The United Nations Security Council will now take up the issue. Meanwhile, President Clinton said Patriot anti- missile missiles would be sent to South Korea and that the Team Spirit US-South Korean military exercises would be reinstated.

Some 850 US soldiers and 200 Patriot missiles are preparing to leave Texas for South Korea. However, the six missile batteries will travel by sea, giving at least a month for diplomacy to work. Team Spirit will also require extensive planning and is unlikely to be staged before autumn or winter. This is in keeping with the US policy of acting tough but also not precipitating a crisis. President Clinton said: 'What happens now is still in the court of the North Koreans and we must hope that they will do the right thing.' Washington also wants to try to secure China's co-operation by showing that it is not seeking a confrontation.

'You want to lay down a record of patient diplomacy to justify if we get into some kind of crisis,' said an official in Washington. 'We want to make it clear that it was due to North Korean intransigence and not to American impetuousness.' North Korean radio yesterday accused the US of provocation, 'further aggravating tensions' on the Korean peninsula. 'The order by Clinton to deploy Patriot missiles in South Korea is a grave threat to us. This clearly shows that the United States is leading the Korean peninsula to the situation of war.' The US had strengthened its 'military threat' to the North and put pressure on Pyongyang by reviving plans for Team Spirit.

The US is drawing up a motion for the Security Council which avoids, for the time being, any mention of economic sanctions. North Korea has said that imposition of sanctions would be tantamount to a declaration of war. Peking, whose support would be vital in any attempt to put economic pressure on North Korea, yesterday indicated that it would not support sanctions but held back from threatening to veto a motion. The Prime Minister, Li Peng, said that if the matter were referred to the UN Security Council, China 'will still adhere to its consistent position' that a negotiated settlement was needed to resolve the crisis.

'China does not stand for pressure,' said Mr Li. 'China's delegate to the UN will explain this in a comprehensive way . . . It is our hope that the other members of the UN Security Council will accept the views of the Chinese side.' If not, Peking would have the option of abstaining on a sanctions motion.

China is North Korea's closest ally but has repeatedly said it does not plan to play an intermediary role in solving the dispute over inspection of Pyongyang's nuclear sites. Peking is nevertheless coming under increasing pressure from its neighbours to use its influence. Last weekend the Japanese Prime Minister, Morihiro Hosokawa, visited Peking and said China had a 'very important' role to play. The Chinese President, Jiang Zemin, hinted that North Korea could be pulled back from the brink of confrontation 'if we talk with them patiently and gently'.

In Seoul, President Kim is completing details for visits later this week to Japan and China, where he will seek assistance in putting last-minute diplomatic pressure on Pyongyang finally to yield over the nuclear inspections. A presidential spokesman said the army, navy and air force had been ordered to increase their state of alert because of fears that North Korea might not back down from its aggressive stance. The CIA director, James Woolsey, recently said he thought North Korea had enough material to build one atomic bomb.

JERUSALEM - Israel has been holding secret talks with North Korea to try to stop missile sales to Iran, breaking a pledge to the US to leave negotiations to American officials, military radio said yesterday, AFP reports.

Israel broke off contacts in August after Washington demanded to spearhead attempts to persuade Pyongyang to stop missile sales to Iran and Syria. At the time the Foreign Minister, Shimon Peres, said: 'We have to take into account the US position and co-ordinate our action with Washington.'

But an unidentified senior Israeli leader told the radio that secret contacts had been recently resumed without US knowledge.

'Not all of them have been carried out in co-ordination with the United States, as they were concerned with Israel's security. If we don't do something about it, nobody is going to do it for us.'