Seoul/Beijing, Jan. 11 (Reuters): North Korea today threatened to end a moratorium on missile testing, escalating tensions on the day it became the world’s first country to withdraw from a treaty preventing the spread of atomic weapons.
The secretive Communist state has caused alarm across the world since expelling UN nuclear inspectors last month and ratcheting up the rhetoric in an attempt to win concessions, recognition and security guarantees from the US.
Pyongyang stunned its neighbours in 1998 by firing a medium-range ballistic missile that arched over Japan. The following year, the North announced a self-imposed moratorium on missile flight tests to last until this year.
“The moratorium on our missile test firing will be of no exception, now that the US has rendered all agreements reached between the United States and North Korea invalid,” North Korean ambassador to China Choe Jin-su told a news conference.
Such a move was essential to counter possible US attack, Choe said, blaming the United States for failing to maintain talks and move towards establishing diplomatic relations.
He spoke a day before US assistant secretary of state James Kelly is due in Seoul on the first leg of an Asian tour and as North Korea presses its own diplomatic offensive.
Reactor ready soon
Another North Korean diplomat said today in Vienna that a Soviet-built nuclear research reactor in Yongbyon, believed to be at the centre of the country’s covert nuclear weapons programme, would become operable in a few weeks.
The North’s anger at the US deepened after a speech last year by President George W. Bush, in which he bracketed North Korea with Iraq and Iran in an “axis of evil”. That speech convinced Pyongyang it was under threat and the brief detention at US behest of a ship exporting missiles to Yemen late last year only heightened the north’s anxiety.
In yesterday’s announcement of its immediate withdrawal from the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), with notice of a single day, Pyongyang blamed Washington’s “hostile” policy but said it had no intention of developing nuclear arms.
Voicing “burning hatred” for the US, more than one million people massed in the North Korean capital to support the their government’s decision, the official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said. The report could not be independently confirmed.
On the other side of the world’s last Cold War flashpoint, tens of thousands of people rallied on a wintry day in central Seoul in support of the US military presence in the south and to denounce the north’s moves to resume its nuclear programme.
Pyongyang’s decision has triggered worldwide condemnation, cries of concern from neighbours and suggestions the issue be placed before the UN Security Council.
The US played down the nuclear standoff, saying the north’s latest move was cause for concern but not unexpected.
The UN International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) sought to reassure worried governments, saying it did not see North Korea’s decision to withdraw from the treaty as raising the stakes in the crisis and felt there was room for diplomacy to work.
North Korea’s official news agency poured out a series of attacks against the US.
“If the US brings dark clouds of war to hang over this land, the army and the people of (North Korea) will remove the land of the US from the earth and root out the very source of evil and war,” KCNA quoted one speaker as telling the rally in Pyongyang.
Tensions have been rising on the divided Korean peninsula since Pyongyang admitted to Kelly in October it had been pursuing a nuclear arms programme in violation of a 1994 agreement.
But South Korean commentators focused on a line in yesterday’s furious statement from Pyongyang that appeared to leave the door ajar to a diplomatic solution by inviting the US to verify that the north did not possess nuclear weapons.
Diplomatic sources with close ties to Pyongyang said in Tokyo that North Korea would agree to scrap its weapons plans if Washington reaffirmed a 2000 joint communique that declared the two nations had “no hostile intention” towards each other.
North Korea clearly did not eschew diplomacy. New Mexico governor Bill Richardson planned a final round of talks with North Korean officials as the US sought a diplomatic solution to persuade Pyongyang to abandon its arms programme.