US prepares for sanctions as N Korea defies the world

North Korea spat defiance at the international community yesterday, threatening to withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and warning that attempts to curb its nuclear programme through sanctions would bring 'devastating consequences menacing peace in Asia and the rest of the world'.

The secretive regime pressed ahead with the removal of 8,000 fuel rods from an experimental reactor, bringing warnings from the US and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) that it would soon be impossible to tell whether North Korea was diverting plutonium for possible use in nuclear weapons, or had done so in the past. Pyongyang refuses to allow IAEA inspectors to monitor the process. North Korea's ambassador to the IAEA, Yun Ho Jin, said yesterday agency pressure was forcing his country close to withdrawal from the NPT.

North Korean intransigence has brought the possibility of international sanctions closer, although leading powers such as China and Russia are lukewarm and doubts remain about their effectiveness. A letter from IAEA director Hans Blix to the UN Security Council said the agency's ability to ascertain whether all plutonium had been declared was 'seriously eroded' and that 'the situation resulting from the (reactor's) core discharge is irreversible.' Earlier yesterday, President Clinton said in Rome that if the IAEA found Pyongyang in breach of nuclear agreements, 'the question of sanctions will have to be moved to the UN Security Council'.

In Seoul, South Korea's ambassador for nuclear affairs, Kim Sam Hoon, said the issue could no longer be avoided: 'Warnings have been delivered to the full. It has now become inevitable to seek punitive measures against the North.' After meeting his South Korean counterpart in Moscow, however, President Boris Yeltsin said he favoured a gradual approach, culminating in sanctions if North Korea continued to reject the terms of the NPT.

Mr Yeltsin wants an international conference on the North Korean crisis, attended by China, Japan, Russia, China, the two Koreas, the UN and the IAEA. Yesterday he said President Kim Young Sam of South Korea had agreed 'in principle' to the idea.