- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 12, 2003

SEOUL, South Korea, Jan. 12 (UPI) — North Korea Sunday denied it had acknowledged to the United States the existence of a nuclear program and said if Washington "challenges (us) recklessly, the stronghold of the aggressors" will be sent "into a sea of fire."

Sunday's statements are the latest in a series of exchanges between Washington and Pyongyang that began last month when North Korea removed monitoring devices and U.N. inspectors from its nuclear facilities and said it was reactivating its nuclear weapons program.

On Friday, it announced it was pulling out of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.

The crisis began last October, when Washington announced to the world that North Korean diplomats had acknowledged to having a nuclear weapons program. The program would have been a violation of a 1994 agreement with Washington. Under that deal, Pyongyang agreed to freeze its nuclear program in exchange for oil shipments.

Following the October announcement, Washington halted the fuel supply.

On Sunday, Pyongyang denied it had told U.S. diplomats about its program.

"The issue of our admitting to nuclear development is an intentional and planned fabrication by the United States," the North's state-run Nodong Sinmun radio said in a commentary.

It said its withdrawal from the nuclear non-proliferation treaty was "a resolute self-defensive measure," to deal with "U.S. nuclear blackmail."

"If the United States avoids its responsibility and challenges (us) recklessly, our army and people will not miss the opportunity and will make a settlement of blood and turn the stronghold of the aggressors into a sea of fire," the commentary said.

It said President Bush's speech in which he labeled North Korea, Iran and Iraq the "axis of evil" designated the North "as a target of a pre-emptive nuclear strike."

Washington has been trying to diplomatically solve the issue with its allies in Asia, South Korea, China and Japan.

U.S. Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly arrived in Seoul late Sunday for talks on the North's nuclear weapons development.

He was to meet South Korean President-elect Roh Moo-hyun and Foreign Minister Choi Sung-hong. Roh, who succeeds President Kim Dae-jung Feb. 25, has played a key role in Seoul's efforts to mediate an end to the standoff.

Last week, Kelly hosted trilateral talks in Washington with South Korea and Japan. He leaves Tuesday for China.

Kim and Roh insist on a diplomatic solution to the crisis.

"We should channel all diplomatic efforts to solve the North Korean nuclear issue peacefully and diplomatically," Kim said Sunday.

In an interview with ABC television Sunday, New Mexico's state governor and former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Bill Richardson said he believes North Korean is willing to engage in direct talks aimed at ending the crisis.

"They don't negotiate like we do. They don't have our same mentality," said Richardson, who held talks with two North Korean envoys in New Mexico's capital, Santa Fe. "They believe in order to get something they have to lay out additional cards, step up the rhetoric, be more belligerent."

"They believe that in order to get something, they have to lay out additional cards — step up the rhetoric, be more beligerent," he said.

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