North Korea piled pressure on the United States yesterday by threatening to resume ballistic missile tests and claiming that a mothballed nuclear reactor would be back in action in a few weeks.
As the world reverberated with more condemnation of its decision to pull out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, Pyongyang appeared eager to press on with the confrontation, and emphasised this by staging a mass anti-US protest on the streets.
The official Korean Central News Agency, a conduit for the Communist government, said more than a million people, voicing "burning hatred for the US imperialists", gathered in the capital to support the decision to pull out of the treaty.
On the other side of the artillery batteries and ramparts that divide the peninsula, 30,000 South Korean Christians turned out to support the presence of 37,000 US troops on their soil – in contrast to the country's recent anti-American trend. "Lord, we need US troops," they chanted.
In Beijing, North Korea's ambassador, Choe Jin Su, declared that it may end a moratorium on ballistic missile tests if the US does not take steps to improve relations. Washington – which wants a diplomatic resolution – says it will hold direct talks. But it is adamant that all further progress will depend on North Korea reversing its recent steps and refreezing its nuclear activities.
"Because all agreements have been nullified by the United States side, we believe we cannot go along with the self-imposed missile moratorium any longer," said Mr Choe. The moratorium was introduced in late 1999 – a year after North Korea caused an international furore by firing a missile over Japan on a test flight which ended when it landed in the Pacific.
North Korea is believed to have missiles that can reach any part of South Korea and most of Japan. US officials believe it is developing rockets that can reach Alaska and Hawaii.
The North Koreans say the moratorium was intended as a gesture to encourage talks with the US over ending hostilities – they have never had diplomatic relations – and normalising relations. They accuse the Americans of failing to respond positively.
Yesterday's developments were another instalment in a steadily deteriorating picture. Last year President Bush caused fury in North Korea by labelling it a member of an "axis of evil" – a move which his critics say helped trigger the current stand-off, which is complicating Washington's efforts to nail down support for attacking Iraq.
The crisis erupted in October when the North Koreans confirmed US intelligence reports that they were secretly conducting a uranium-enrichment programme. The US cut off fuel oil supplies. The North Koreans moved to reactivate their frozen nuclear programme and threw out nuclear inspectors from the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
One of the installations of most concern to the West and to North Korea's regional neighbours is an atomic reactor which is believed capable of producing weapons-grade plutonium.
Son Mun San – North Korea's official link with the IAEA – said in Vienna yesterday that the reactor, part of the sprawling nuclear complex at Yongbyon, will be ready to start up "in a few weeks". This marks a change from earlier estimates of up to two months which the IAEA recently said it received from the North Koreans.
Pyongyang says it has no intention of producing nuclear weapons, but needs the reactor to produce electricity because the US has cut off fuel oil aid in retaliation for their uranium-enriching project.
It continues to insist its withdrawal from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty – making it the first country to do so – was "legitimate self-defence" in the face of US threats of nuclear attack.
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