North Korea angrily blamed the United States yesterday for its decision to pull out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, while Washington flatly demanded that the reclusive state abandon its secret nuclear weapons programme.
Countries around the world condemned Pyongyang's move, and President George Bush urged President Jiang Zemin of China, which has the most influence over North Korea, to persuade it to change course.
The decision to quit the 1970 treaty, the cornerstone of efforts to prevent the spread of nuclear weapons, sharply raises the stakes in the showdown between the North and the US, after North Korea admitted in the autumn that it had a nuclear programme and expelled United Nations weapons inspectors.
Yesterday, Pak Gil Yon, North Korea's ambassador to the UN, claimed his government had no plans to develop nuclear weapons "at this stage". He called the withdrawal "a product of the US hostile policy" and warned that if the UN imposed sanctions on the regime, it would be seen by Pyongyang as a declaration of war. A new conflict on the Korean peninsula could trigger "a third world war" according to Pyongyang.
The decision seems, at the least, certain to trigger a UN Security Council resolution demanding that Kim Jong Il's regime honour its obligations.
Colin Powell, the US Secretary of State, insisted on a diplomatic approach although Washington rejects all talk of the non-aggression treaty sought by Pyongyang.
Mr Powell added: "North Korea has thumbed its nose at the international community. We're not going to be intimidated, we're not going to be put into a panic situation."
Vice-President Dick Cheney, demanded "prompt and verifiable action to completely dismantle" its arms programme.
The decision has shocked countries throughout the region. South Korea's government convened its national security council to discuss what its outgoing President, Kim Dae Jung, called "an issue tied to our life and death". France, Russia and Britain all condemned the North's move.
Despite its commitment to a peaceful resolution, the escalating confrontation with Pyongyang is making it even harder for Washington to convince the world and elements of its domestic audience of the need to mobilise for a possible war with Iraq. Saddam Hussein has barely embarked on the nuclear road when compared with North Korea.
The North's apocalyptic language only adds to the mystery of its motives. Even as it was quitting the treaty, the North sent two envoys to meet Bill Richardson, a former UN ambassador and negotiator with North Korea, in what was seen as a conciliatory move. The talks continued for several hours yesterday.
The conflicting signals mirror splits within the Bush administration. Some American officials believe the North is upping the stakes to win concessions in a subsequent deal. Others contend that it is determined to develop nuclear weapons to protect itself from pre-emptive military action such as that facing Iraq, which, with North Korea, is part of Mr Bush's so-called "axis of evil".
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