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Thursday, 6 February, 2003, 16:18 GMT
US shrugs off N Korea threat
South Korean Catholic nun chants anti-US slogans, 06 February 2003
Tensions over North Korea are worrying the South
The United States has shrugged off a threat from North Korea that any decision to send more troops to the region might prompt it to make a pre-emptive attack.

"Obviously the United States is prepared [with] robust plans for any contingencies," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said in a briefing on Thursday.

"But this type of talk and the type of actions North Korea has engaged in - or says it is engaging in - only hurt North Korea."

US officials announced this week that Washington was considering strengthening its military forces in the Pacific Ocean.

Kim Jong-il (AFP photo)
Known as the 'dear leader'
Film buff who eats lobsters with chopsticks
Reputation as ruthless manipulator
North Korea responded with a warning that any US attack on its nuclear facilities at Yongbyon would trigger "full scale war".

Mr Fleischer downplayed the tough words from Pyongyang, saying the US had "heard much talk from North Korea before".

The US said reinforcements would help signal that a possible war with Iraq was not distracting the US from its nuclear stand-off with the North.

The North said on Wednesday that it had reactivated the nuclear site and its operations were now going ahead "on a normal footing".

Pyongyang says it will use the facilities to produce electricity "at the present stage".

However, the US and nuclear experts say the Yongbyon reactor, which has been mothballed since 1994, is too small to generate meaningful amounts of electricity.

They are concerned that North Korea's real purpose is to resume production of weapons-grade plutonium.

Growing alarm

The threat to strike first against US troops in the region came from North Korea's foreign ministry deputy director, Ri Pyong-gap.

16 Oct: US announces that N Korea has acknowledged secret nuclear programme
14 Nov: Oil shipments to N Korea halted
22 Dec: N Korea removes monitoring devices at Yongbyon nuclear plant
31 Dec: UN nuclear inspectors forced to leave North Korea
10 Jan: N Korea pulls out of anti-nuclear treaty
4 Feb: US says it might reinforce troops in Pacific
5 Feb: N Korea says nuclear facilities reactivated
Speaking to the BBC's Mike Thompson in Pyongyang, Mr Ri said his government was becoming increasingly alarmed at signs that Washington planned to send more aircraft carriers, bombers and troops to the region.

He said such actions would mean that the US was either planning to invade the North or launch attacks against it.

In response, he insisted, Pyongyang would not just sit and wait, and might decide to strike first if necessary.

The country currently has a standing army of more than one million soldiers. The US has about 37,000 troops based in South Korea.

Our correspondent says tensions on the streets of Pyongyang are tangible. Air raid drills and blackouts are becoming twice-daily rituals and huge posters calling for courage in the fight ahead cover billboards and walls.

North Korean denial

The North Koreans are believed to possess one or two nuclear weapons already, as well as enough spent fuel rods to make four to six more.

However, analysts say that reactivating Yongbyon reactor gives North Korea the capacity to mass produce plutonium for nuclear weapons, raising fears of a nuclear arms race in east Asia.

Tension has been building in the region ever since claims by Washington that the communist regime in Pyongyang had admitted resuming the development of nuclear weapons in violation of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.

North Korea denies the allegations, which it says are being used to justify an imminent American invasion.

Analysts say the North may be trying to force the US to negotiate a non-aggression pact, or strengthen its nuclear arsenal while the US is preoccupied with Iraq.

The United Nations' nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), whose inspectors were expelled from the plant in December, is due to hold an emergency meeting next week on the nuclear crisis.

Yongbyon: Five megawatt experimental nuclear power reactor and a partially completed plutonium extraction facility. Activities at site frozen under 1994 Agreed Framework
Taechon: 200-MWt nuclear power reactor - construction halted under Agreed Framework
Pyongyang: Laboratory-scale "hot cells" that may have been used to extract small quantities of plutonium
Kumho: Two 1,000-MWt light water reactors being built under Agreed Framework

The BBC's David Loyn
"North Korea is a far more serious military threat than Iraq"
The BBC's Jon Leyne
"North Korea is getting mixed messages and is sending back even more confused ones in return"
Ri Pyong-gap, North Korean foreign ministry
"A very dangerous situation has been created"

Nuclear tensions

Inside North Korea

Divided peninsula

See also:

04 Feb 03 | Asia-Pacific
03 Feb 03 | Asia-Pacific
05 Feb 03 | Asia-Pacific
06 Feb 03 | Asia-Pacific
06 Feb 03 | Asia-Pacific
06 Feb 03 | Asia-Pacific
06 Feb 03 | Asia-Pacific
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