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N. Korea Makes Explicit Threat

Regime warns of 'immediate physical' retaliation in the event of a U.S. blockade. Powell appears to shrug off the statement.

June 18, 2003|Barbara Demick and Robin Wright | Times Staff Writers

SEOUL — In an unusually explicit threat, North Korea warned Tuesday that it would take "an immediate physical retaliatory step" against the United States if Washington imposes a blockade in the ongoing standoff over Pyongyang's nuclear program.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell appeared to shrug off the warning and expressed confidence that U.S. efforts to get North Korea to give up its nuclear ambitions are working.

"I am pleased at the unity we have been able to achieve with the countries in the region. Everybody is saying the same things to the North Koreans with respect to the unacceptability of their actions, that they want a Korean peninsula without nuclear weapons," Powell told reporters traveling with him to Cambodia for a regional security meeting.

"We will not be intimidated by their rhetoric or their actions," Powell added.

The United States is exploring various means short of sanctions or a blockade to pressure North Korea. One topic discussed last week with allies at a meeting in Madrid was tightening international laws against the sale of weapons of mass destruction and their delivery systems.

Powell said Tuesday that the goal is to explore ways of making it more difficult to transfer weapons or their components "in the airways and seaways and landways of the world."

In a related but separate effort, the United States is also pressing for a crackdown on North Korea's narcotics and counterfeit-currency trafficking, which are believed to generate cash for Kim Jong Il's impoverished regime. Powell is expected to make a formal presentation today on North Korea at the Assn. of Southeast Asian Nations meeting in Phnom Penh.

North Korea's official Rodong Sinmun newspaper said the U.S. efforts are part of a war plan. In a commentary carried by the nation's official news agency, North Korea said a retaliatory step would be carried out "against the U.S. once [the North] judges that its sovereignty is infringed upon by Washington's blockade operation." North Korea also threatened Japan.

The North Koreans are famous for their vituperative rhetoric, which is often so flowery as to be laughed off as a parody. Still, the threat issued Tuesday was unusually explicit. More often, the North Koreans issue vague warnings of catastrophic consequences or impending war.

North Korea has multistage ballistic missiles that could possibly reach Alaska and Hawaii and is developing long-range missiles that could hit the continental United States.

Despite the war of words, in recent days there have been encouraging signs that negotiations will resume shortly on the nuclear issue. The United States wants North Korea to abandon its nuclear program, which it restarted last year.

Talks including U.S. and North Korean representatives were last held in April in Beijing but have not continued because of diplomatic wrangling over the format.

China is believed to be pressing North Korea to agree to five-party talks with the United States, China, South Korea and Japan. That would satisfy the U.S. demand that negotiations be conducted in a multilateral setting. North Korea has sought direct talks with the U.S. alone.

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Demick reported from Seoul and Wright from Phnom Penh.

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