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ASIA Tensions build as N. Korea threatens to ignore armistice



Published: Tue, February 18, 2003 @ 12:00 a.m.



Bush has said he will not respond to threats or blackmail, a White House spokesman said.

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) -- In an apparent attempt to force direct dialogue with the United States, North Korea threatened today to abandon the armistice that ended the Korean War five decades ago, accusing Washington of planning an attack.

A spokesman of the North's Korean People's Army said "the situation on the Korean Peninsula is getting extremely tense" because of alleged U.S. plans to send in reinforcements and build a naval blockade to prepare for a pre-emptive attack. The nations are locked in a dispute over North Korea's nuclear program.

North Korea "will be left with no option but to take a decisive step to abandon its commitment to implement the Armistice Agreement ... and free itself from the binding force of all its provisions," said the unidentified spokesman, quoted by the North's state-run KCNA news agency.

Armed forces of the two Koreas were in the middle of their annual winter training. But South Korean and U.S. officials saw no immediate indication North Korea planned to launch a serious attack across the border.

No U.S. response

State Department officials in Washington had no immediate reaction to the North's threat. A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, noted the Bush administration had said in the past it would not respond to threats or blackmail.

Even if today's announcement is largely symbolic, any change in the armistice -- the only legal instrument keeping an uneasy peace on the peninsula -- could greatly increase tensions and uncertainty.

The 1950-53 Korean War ended with an armistice, not a peace treaty, leaving the peninsula still technically in a state of war. The frontier is the world's most heavily armed with most of the nearly 2 million troops of both sides deployed near the border, including 37,000 Americans stationed in the South.

The threat was the latest North Korean move in an international dispute over its suspected development of nuclear weapons.

Recent decisions by North Korea to restart its nuclear facilities and withdraw from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty have been widely viewed as attempts to increase tension and pressure Washington into direct negotiations on a nonaggression pact. The impoverished North is also desperate for food and energy aid.

The North has long been undermining the armistice, calling it a "useless scrap of paper." It has refused to participate in armistice commission talks.

Stop in Beijing

Also today, China received North Korea's foreign minister for a brief visit that Chinese officials said ended with both sides expressing hope that the nuclear standoff can be resolved peacefully.

Paek Nam Sun met with China's vice foreign minister, Wang Yi. Paek was passing through Beijing en route to a meeting of nonaligned nations in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, according to Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Zhang Qiyue.

"The two sides expressed wishes to solve this problem on the Korean Peninsula through dialogue," Zhang said.

Maj. Ha Ju-yeon, a spokesman at the South Korean Defense Ministry, said there were no unusual movements by North Korean troops today along the 150-mile border.

The winter training for both Korean militaries began in December. But North Korea suffers acute fuel shortages, and its military's winter maneuverings have been less vigorous in recent years, Ha said.

"I think there is little or no risk of war on the Korean Peninsula," South Korean President Kim Dae-jung was quoted as saying by his spokeswoman, Park Sun-sook.

Kim called for direct dialogue between the United States and North Korea, saying such talks were crucial to international efforts to bring a diplomatic end to the dispute.

The U.S. military announced Monday that it would conduct two joint military exercises with South Korea next month, although it said the annual maneuvers are not related to the nuclear dispute with North Korea.

North Korea has denounced past joint U.S.-South Korea maneuvers as preparations for an invasion.

Copyright 2003 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.




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