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N. Korea missile steals Powell show in south

Seoul, Feb. 25 (Reuters): North Korea test-fired a missile and accused the US of conducting spy flights, upstaging today’s inauguration of a new President in Seoul attended by US secretary of state Colin Powell.

News of the test, the latest twist in a four-month nuclear stand-off, rattled Asian financial markets and Australian foreign minister Alexander Downer said Pyongyang was trying to “create a sense of a crisis”.

Powell, however, called it a “fairly innocuous” launch of an old missile for which North Korea had given advance notice.

In his inaugural speech, President Roh Moo-hyun condemned North Korea’s suspected nuclear weapons programme as a “grave threat to world peace”.

“It is up to Pyongyang whether to go ahead and obtain nuclear weapons or to get guarantees for the security of its regime and international economic support,” he said. But he highlighted differences with Washington on how to respond to the threat by pledging to work for a more equitable and reciprocal relationship with the US.

The dovish Roh, a 56-year-old former human rights lawyer, has ruled out force against Pyongyang, while the US insists all options must be kept open.

The divergent views risk a half-century alliance forged in the Cold War and nurtured under successive pro-US military presidents in South Korea, which plays host to 37,000 US troops. Powell and Roh sought to paper over the rift. In conciliatory remarks, Powell said he had told Roh that Washington had no plans to use military force to deal with North Korea.

“There are no armies on the march”, he told Roh, adding Washington would consult Seoul before taking any action.

“I think he was reassured by my comments,” Powell told a news conference at which he also unveiled US plans to resume food aid to hungry and impoverished North Korea.

Roh was quoted by South Korea’s Yonhap news agency as telling reporters: “I frankly don't understand all this talk about a Korea-US dispute”. He said “minor differences” could be ironed out through dialogue, and he hoped to take up an invitation to visit US President George W. Bush. Roh has vowed to continue the policy of his predecessor Kim Dae-jung of unconditional engagement with North Korea despite the north’s suspected nuclear ambitions. Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi also sought to play down the missile test, saying he had not discussed it with Roh.

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