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US sends mixed signals to N Korea

THE US Defense Secretary, William Perry, warned yesterday that if diplomatic efforts failed, Washington would not flinch from 'strong action' to stop North Korea's nuclear- weapons programme, even at the risk of provoking a desperate regime into unleashing a full-scale war.

In firm but measured terms on NBC's Meet the Press, Mr Perry insisted that the US was not contemplating a pre- emptive strike to take out North Korea's nuclear facilities 'under these circumstances, at this time'. But while declaring that the US would not initiate a war, he pointedly refused to rule out the option of direct military attack if all else failed.

'We don't want war and won't provoke war,' he said. But Washington would take further action if the North would not agree to open up its nuclear sites for international inspection. Mr Perry acknowledged that this could trigger a conflict. 'We don't know the intentions of the North Korean leaders . . . this is the risk we are taking.'

Mr Perry's words perfectly illustrated the awkward - perhaps impossible - line the Clinton administration is treading in the trickiest foreign-policy crisis it has so far faced. Simultaneously, he sought both to impress Pyongyang that the US was determined to force compliance and to reassure both Koreas, China and Japan that it would do everything possible to avert a hot war on the Korean peninsula.

Mr Perry's appearance came amid claims by officials here that, in apparent open defiance of US and international pressure, the North may double its capacity to produce plutonium, the key raw material for nuclear bombs, within six months.

Yesterday he accused Kim Il Sung's regime of lying over its nuclear programme, citing CIA conclusions that North Korea already possessed one or two primitive nuclear devices and was developing both weapons and the intermediate-range missiles to carry them. Washington's goal was first to 'freeze the nuclear programme where it is' and then force the North to abandon the weapons it already has.

Mr Perry maintained there must be 'no possibility for confusion' in North Korean minds. But he only added to that confusion. The problems, he declared at one point, 'would take a year or two to unfold' and war was not imminent. But the freeze on the programme would have to be in place 'in months, not years', he said in reply to another question.

The next gambits in the Korean crisis are unclear. A Chinese delegation is said to be about to visit the North. The US and South Korea, meanwhile, have postponed a decision on a date for fresh joint military exercises, though Mr Perry said that a new timetable was under discussion. The overall urgency has been increased by the reports of an intensified North Korean nuclear effort.

International monitors have discovered a second production line at the plutonium reprocessing plant of Yongbyon.