The United States announced plans for joint war games with South Korea and emphatically ruled out direct talks with Stalinist North Korea to resolve an escalating nuclear crisis.
With no glimmer of respite in the four-month old nuclear standoff, US authorities announced that annual joint military exercises would take place from March 4 to April 2 on the Korean peninsula.
North Korea routinely denounces military drills in South Korea as preparations for an invasion and experts said this time the denunciations would be even more strident.
But US officials refused to link the war games to the nuclear crisis simmering since October, describing them as purely defensive and designed to improve the ability of allied forces to defend South Korea against "external aggression."
Washington is demanding that North Korea scrap its nuclear weapons ambitions before it will agree to negotiate with the Stalinist regime. Pyongyang insists on a non-aggression pact and direct talks first.
Though North Korea has yet to respond to the announcement of US-South Korean war games, Pyongyang's official media indicated the mood of the country when it said Monday the regime's victory in a nuclear war against the United States was already assured.
"Victory is ours in the nuclear confrontation and our ... flag will fly more vigorously than before," North Korea's state radio said in a broadcast monitored by Yonhap news agency here.
"Our victory will be decisive and our future will be even brighter."
The joint military exercises are an annual fixture between South Korean and US forces, allied in a 50-year-old defense pact. A US aircraft carrier will be deployed to waters around the Korean peninsula as part of the war games and a mock battle will be staged.
This time, however, the stakes are higher. On Sunday, US President George W. Bush's national security adviser Condoleezza Rice slammed the door to direct talks with North Korea.
The United States says the nuclear crisis must be settled through international diplomacy whereas Pyongyang says the standoff is between it and Washington alone.
"I know that the North Koreans would like nothing better than this to become a bilateral problem between the United States and North Korea," Rice said in a TV interview.
"But the Chinese have an enormous stake, the Russians have an enormous stake, the Japanese have an enormous stake," she said.
"We cannot allow the North Koreans to step back into a bilateral discussion with the United States."
Kim Dae-Jung, the president of South Korea, a country which has perhaps the biggest stake of all in a peaceful resolution of the crisis, responded with a call for direct Washington-Pyongyang dialogue.
"North Korea wants safety guarantees, the United States wants North Korea to give up its nuclear ambitions ... There must be a North Korea-US dialogue," Kim said.
The crisis erupted in October after the United States accused North Korea of running a secret uranium-enrichment program and later cut off fuel aid to the energy-starved regime.
Pyongyang responded by expelling UN inspectors, pulling out of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty and reactivating a mothballed plant capable of producing weapons-grade plutonium.
The case has been passed on to the UN Security Council which can impose an array of sanctions on North Korea, a move which Pyongyang says would be tantamount to a declaration of war.
Washington insists that it wants a peaceful solution, but Bush has ruled out no options and on Monday the New York Times said the White House had already drawn up a sanctions hit list.
The list includes halting North Korea's weapons shipments and cutting off money sent there by ethnic Koreans living in Japan, according to the newspaper.
Amid signs of increasing jitters in Tokyo, Japan and the United States have reportedly decided to conduct joint tests on intercepting ballistic missiles in Hawaii from next year.
North Korea fired a multi-stage rocket which overflew Japan in 1998 and has hinted that it was readying to test-fire more despite a self-imposed missile-testing moratorium.
North Korea is believed to have 100 Rodong-1 missiles with a range of 1,300 kilometers (805 miles). South Korea's defence ministry says it is also testing Taepodong-1 missiles with a range of 2,500 kilometers and developing longer-range Taepodong-2 missiles.
© 2003 AFP