- The Washington Times - Friday, February 1, 2002

North Korea today said President Bush's effort to include it in a global "Axis of evil" constituted a virtual declaration of war and said it would resist any aggressive U.S. military move.

Governments around the world also weighed in on Mr. Bush's strongly worded warning in Tuesday night's State of the Union address, which singled out North Korea, Iran and Iraq as state sponsors of terrorism constituting an "Axis" of dangerous regimes that the United States is watching closely.

In the regime's first extended comments on the speech, the North's KCNA state news agency early this morning quoted an unnamed government spokesman as saying that Mr. Bush's warning was "little short of declaring a war" on the North.

"We are sharply watching the moves of the United States that have pushed the situation to the brink of war after throwing away even the mask of dialogue and negotiation," the spokesman said.

But senior Bush administration officials yesterday strongly defended the president's words and said Pyongyang had been singled out because it remains a favored source of weapons and arms for terrorist groups and hostile states.

"North Korea is now the world's No. 1 merchant for ballistic missiles, open for business with anyone, no matter how malignant the buyer's intentions," National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice told a gathering of the Conservative Political Action Conference yesterday.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said that, despite a standing U.S. offer for direct talks with the North, Pyongyang remains a grave concern because of its direct support for terrorists and its indirect support for "terrorist organizations which operate in the many countries to which North Korea has exported and continues to export missiles and technology."

Iraq and Iran remain dangerous, both as centers of terrorism and because of their aggressive efforts to acquire weapons of mass destruction, Miss Rice said.

But she and other administration officials cautioned yesterday that Mr. Bush's stark words did not necessarily mean that military action was imminent.

"All of these nations have a choice to make: to abandon the course they now pursue," she said. "Unfortunately, terrible regimes have shown no inclination to do so."

Iran and Iraq have also denounced the president's remarks, with Tehran calling them "insulting" and Baghdad labeling them "stupid."

But several other governments also expressed reservations, including a number of powers that have tried to improve relations with Iran in recent years.

India, which has tried to move closer to both Tehran and Washington, said it has "friendly ties" with Iran and does not endorse the "Axis of evil" characterization.

"That is not the way we look at it," Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Nirupama Rao told reporters in New Delhi yesterday.

China, which was recently sanctioned by the U.S. government for military sales to Iran, accused Mr. Bush of diplomatic bad manners.

Said Foreign Ministry spokesman Kong Quan: "China is not in favor of using such a term."

"We advocate in international affairs that all countries should treat one another as equals. Otherwise, you'll only undermine the atmosphere for seeking a solution," Mr. Kong added.

British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, who met with Secretary of State Colin L. Powell yesterday during a quick U.S. visit, said the United States and Britain remained united in the determination to fight global terrorism.

But Mr. Straw, who visited Tehran in September in a bid to improve relations, said the West should "stay engaged" with reformist elements in the Tehran government. Britain also is one of a number of Western European states that have opened embassies in North Korea.

German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder had no comment on the "Axis" remark after a 40-minute meeting with Mr. Bush in the Oval Office yesterday evening.

The German leader was noncommittal in remarks to reporters in Berlin before leaving for Washington yesterday.

When asked directly about Mr. Bush's comment, the chancellor said, "We will answer such questions when they are posed. At present, we are especially focused on the fight against terror in Afghanistan."

Washington's sharp criticism of North Korea this week is one more complication for the government of South Korean President Kim Dae-jung, which has seen its "sunshine policy" of rapprochement with the North stall as relations between Washington and Pyongyang chill.

South Korean Foreign Minister Han Seung-soo, who met with Miss Rice yesterday, told the South Korean news agency Yonhap that it was North Korea that had failed to adjust to the new global situation.

"North Korea must understand that the Clinton administration has been replaced by the Bush administration and must come to the table of dialogue as soon as possible," Mr. Han was quoted as saying.

Mr. Bush's "Axis of evil" remark also did not play well in many foreign press accounts.

The London Independent, in one typical remark among Europe's mostly leftist press, called the president's speech "distinctly disturbing."

"America is already envied and disliked because of its domination," the paper said. "The danger is that Mr. Bush's speech, with its simple certainties and pronounced unilateralist flavor, will merely fuel that resentment further."

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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