- The Washington Times - Friday, March 7, 2003

SEOUL, South Korea, March 7 (UPI) — North Korea Friday criticized U.S. President George W. Bush's comment of a military option to end the months-long nuclear crisis as a sign Washington was ready to attack the North.

Pyongyang's state-run media also said the deepening nuclear crisis could be resolved if the United States was willing to sit down for talks.

In an interview Monday with 14 U.S. newspapers, Bush said the nuclear standoff can be resolved with diplomacy, but did not rule out using military force against North Korea, saying "military option is our last choice."

"Bush's remarks on 'military option' are little short of a signal to go into action against DPRK (North Korea)," said North Korea's Central News Agency. "It is an undisguised revelation of the U.S. intention to make a pre-emptive strike at the DPRK's nuclear facilities," KCNA said.

It also warned Bush's stance would bring the Korean peninsula "to the brink of war," saying the country's 1.1 million-strong army "will certainly wipe out the aggressors with the might of single-hearted unity."

North Korea also renewed a call for direct dialogue with Washington to defuse the nuclear crisis, a proposal already rejected by the United States, which insists talks be multilateral, saying it will not be bullied into negotiations by nuclear threats.

"As far as the U.S. much-publicized nuclear issue on the Korean peninsula is concerned, it can surely be solved if the U.S. has a will to settle it through dialogues and negotiations with the DPRK," KCNA said.

"By nature, the DPRK's nuclear issue is a product of the U.S. hostile policy toward the DPRK, as it is a fiction Washington dreamed up in a bid to disarm Pyongyang and bring it to its knees by forcing it to scrap its nuclear program before dialogue," it said.

North Korea, which has raised concerns that it could be the U.S. military's next target after a war in Iraq, has taken a series of steps to ratchet up tensions and pressure on Washington.

South Korea's top security official, Unification Minister Jeong Se-hyun, who is in charge of inter-Korean relations, has dismissed the possibility of a pre-emptive U.S. military attack on North Korea as "groundless anxiety."

Jeong cited the Seoul-Washington security treaty that rules out unilateral U.S. military moves against North Korea without prior consultations with South Korea. U.S. Ambassador Thomas Hubbard on Friday also ruled out any U.S. military actions against North Korea without South Korean support.

But jitters are running high in South Korea after U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld indicated Thursday a possible withdrawal of American troops from the peninsula, saying South Korea is capable of defending the border itself. Rumsfeld said U.S. officials were consulting the Seoul government on the matter.

Seoul's Defense Minister Cho Young-kil denied any talks on a reduction in the U.S. military strength in the country. "We have confirmed that the United States has no plan to reduce its ground forces stationed in the country," he told a parliamentary hearing.

"Discussions on the relocation of the United States Forces in Korea will proceed with the long-term security situation of the Korean peninsula," Cho said.

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