North Korea's nuclear plant move troubles Seoul and angers US


South Korea's president and president-elect discussed North Korea's nuclear brinkmanship yesterday as the United States said it would neither bargain nor negotiate under duress with the reclusive communist state.

Little emerged from the meeting between President Kim Dae-jung and his successor, Mr Roh Moo-hyun, who was elected on Thursday and takes over in February.

South Korean media said the two men, who both favour constructive engagement with the North, confirmed they sought a peaceful resolution to the crisis.

Mr Kim's spokeswoman, Mr Park Sun-sook, told reporters the talks "centred on the North Korean nuclear issue" and ties with the United States, Japan, China, Russia and the European Union, all countries working with Washington to defuse the crisis.

But both sides declined to offer detailed comment on the talks, the first of several meetings planned during the leadership transition. Mr Roh also received "factual briefings" from Mr Kim's leading security advisers, a presidential aide said.

North Korea, a country President Bush lumped with Iraq and Iran in an "axis of evil", said at the weekend it had begun removing UN monitoring equipment at a nuclear reactor capable of yielding weapons-grade plutonium.

South Korean shares fell more than two percent yesterday to close at their lowest level in a month. Traders blamed North Korea's nuclear announcement and worry about war in Iraq.

The US Secretary of State, Mr Colin Powell, telephoned China, South Korea, Russia, Japan and other allies over the weekend.

On Sunday, South Korea voiced "deep regret" at the North's move and vowed to work with allies to defuse a crisis.

A US State Department spokesman, Mr Lou Fintor, said Washington, which accuses Iraq of possessing secret weapons of mass destruction and has threatened it with war if it does not come clean, expected North Korea to respect international commitments it had made.

"We will not bargain or offer inducements for North Korea to live up to the treaties and agreements it has signed," Mr Fintor said. "Let me underscore the United States will not enter into dialogue in response to threats or broken commitments."

A UN watchdog said North Korea had broken seals on about 8,000 spent fuel rods at Yongbyon, a reactor at the centre of an earlier crisis defused by a 1994 compliance deal.

"As the spent fuel contains a significant amount of plutonium, North Korea's action is of great non-proliferation concern," said Mr Mohamed El-Baradei, head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).

Australia, one of the few Western nations to have diplomatic ties with North Korea, weighed in with strong words of its own. "[North Korea's] actions will be met by firm international resolve," Australia's Foreign Minister, Mr Alexander Downer said, urging the North to step back and co-operate fully with the IAEA.

In Washington, the outgoing Democrat chairman of the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Senator Joseph Biden, said the North Korean threat was greater than Iraq's.

South Korean commentators said Pyongyang appeared to be testing Mr Roh and trying to exploit divisions between Seoul and Washington. - (Reuters)