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Last Updated:  Friday, 4 April, 2003, 11:47 GMT 12:47 UK
UN urges North Korea-US talks
Maurice Strong
Mr Strong said North Korea wanted to join the internatinal community
The UN envoy to North Korea, Maurice Strong, has said that Washington and Pyongyang are close together on fundamental issues but are hampered by their lack of direct communication.

Speaking ahead of a UN Security Council meeting on North Korea next week, Mr Strong told journalists in London that the 9 April forum could be "contentious" but represented a chance for steps towards peace.

However, Mr Strong did warn that the crisis could quickly escalate, and that conflict on the Korean peninsula was "entirely possible".

He said that both North Korea and the US believed they had time on their side, but that "the longer they wait... the more risk there is of incidents that will provoke a hardening of attitudes".

A series of moves by North Korea since late last year has created extreme tension in the region.

Pyongyang has restarted its nuclear facilities, expelled UN inspectors and withdrawn from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT).

North Korea, Mr Strong said, contends that the US was responsible for the crisis by itself breaching the NPT, which should allow non-nuclear powers freedom from threats from nuclear-armed states.

He said Pyongyang considered itself threatened by a series of statements from the US, including Washington's stated right to pre-emptive attack, and its branding North Korea part of an "axis of evil".

Mr Strong said that the North wanted a security guarantee from the US and a lifting of economic restrictions, while the US wanted the North to abandon its nuclear programmes and rejoin the NPT in return for economic assistance.

"The paradox is that on the fundamental issues the two sides are saying more or less what the other side is demanding... but they haven't been able to say it to each other directly," he said.

This is because the North has insisted on bilateral talks with the US while Washington is adamant that the issue is international and any discussions should involve other countries.

North Korean propaganda poster
The North Koreans are prepared for war, but anxious for peace
UN envoy Maurice Strong

The North, he said, agreed that multilateral talks should take place, but only after direct talks with the US - the other primary player in the dispute.

"I'm satisfied now that the modalities can be bridged," he said. "It should be quite feasible... to accommodate both positions."

Mr Strong stressed repeatedly that "the North Koreans are prepared for war, but anxious for peace".

He said that he did not judge the "odds" of war were very high, but that a 50-year build-up of lack of trust meant it could easily happen.

The North has warned that if the Security Council chooses to impose sanctions, it would consider the move an "act of war".

But Mr Strong said that at least two Security Council members were against sanctions, and that he "would hope that it will begin... first steps along a pathway to a peaceful resolution rather than to escalating the conflict".

North Korea on Friday blasted the decision by the US to impose trade sanctions on its missile marketing agency for selling missile technology to Pakistan.

"It is our sovereign right to produce, deploy or export missiles to other countries," its official KCNA news agency said in a report, noting that it was not bound by no legal restrictions.

The agency on Thursday also reported the movements of the North's leader, Kim Jong-il, for the first time in 50 days.

He was reported to have visited a military medical school in Pyongyang. There has been speculation that Mr Kim has been holed up with his military generals, preparing for a US strike on the North.

Mr Strong said that the war in Iraq had created "clear concern" in Pyongyang, as the US was carrying out its stated right to pre-emptive strikes.

"They believe that they are next on the list," he said.

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