Washington's plan to use economic pressure to stop North Korea from restarting its nuclear plants – seen by the CIA as nuclear warhead factories – has been rejected as ineffective by South Korea.
The outgoing President, Kim Dae Jung, and his successor poured scorn on the American strategy yesterday, saying it would not persuade Pyongyang to change tack.
America is seeking to use "tailored containment" against North Korea to stop Pyongyang fulfilling threats to reactivate its nuclear programme, including plants that can produce large amounts of weapons-grade plutonium.
The strategy failed to impress President Kim, who leaves office in February. In remarks that underscore the rift between the Bush administration and Seoul, President Kim told his cabinet: "Pressure and isolation have never worked with Communist countries – Cuba is one example."
His newly elected replacement, Roh Moo Hyun – an advocate of Seoul's "sunshine policy" of dialogue and aid with the North– criticised Washington's attitude, saying it would only serve to aggravate differences. North Korea is likely to welcome the gap between the US and South Korea, which it has been seeking to widen.
Today, inspectors from the UN's International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), are due to leave North Korea. Their expulsion is the latest instalment in a worsening stand-off, which has seen the North Koreans move to start up activities at their sprawling nuclear complex at Yongbyon, which had been frozen under a 1994 agreement. The IAEA was monitoring the freeze.
Many hundreds of fuel rods have been moved into storage areas, ready to be used to fire up a Soviet-era atomic reactor there, which US intelligence believes can make enough plutonium for one warhead a year.
The North Koreans also said they intended to start up a plutonium-producing reprocessing plant at the site. This has caused concern because they have 8,000 spent fuel rods in storage, which the CIA believes could provide material for up to five bombs. They also disabled IAEA security seals and surveillance cameras.
In a further sign of dissent, North Korea hinted it might pull out of the treaty on the non- proliferation of nuclear weap-ons, which seeks to confine nuclear weapons to the United States, Russia, Britain, France and China. North Korea signed the treaty in 1985, although the Americans believe it has made at least one nuclear bomb since.
Despite this, America has played down the stand-off, arguing there is not yet a crisis. It is pushing the case for economic, rather than military, pressure but has ruled out direct talks unless Pyongyang reimposes the freeze on its nuclear activities.
Fears abound in South Korea – which is within range of the North's artillery – that playing hardball with the regime of Kim Jong Il will prove counterproductive, resulting in the Stalinist state taking a more intransigent and dangerous line.
Some South Korean analysts believe President George Bush's decision to include the North in his "axis of evil" played a central part in aggravating relations in the region.
These misgivings have meshed with an upsurge of anti-American sentiment in South Korea, fuelled by anger at the acquittal by a US military tribunal of two American soldiers involved in a car crash that killed two schoolgirls.
The United States will send James Kelly, the assistant secretary of state, to South Korea next month to try to smooth over the wrinkles in its relationship with Seoul, which it sees as a close ally. America has stationed about 37,000 troops in the country.
Meanwhile, South Korea is looking for help from China and Russia.
The latter has been openly critical of Washington's decision to cut off fuel oil aid to North Korea in retaliation for Pyongyang's secret uranium-enriching project.
But yesterday Moscow balanced this criticism with denouncements of North Korea's decision to expel the IAEA inspectors and reactivate its nuclear programme.
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