SEOUL, South Korea – World leaders today urged North Korea to reverse its decision to withdraw from the key nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. But Pyongyang immediately upped the ante instead by threatening World War III.
The United States initially took a lower-key approach than its allies. Financial markets in South Korea and Japan reacted nervously.
A new Korean War will finally lead to the Third World War. Let us see who will win and who will be defeated in the fire-to-fire standoff.
the official North Korean news agency
North Korea eased its initial announcement on the treaty withdrawal by saying it is willing to talk to Washington about ending the escalating dispute over its nuclear ambitions.
However, it later ratched up the rhetoric by warning the United States not to take military action against it, saying a "new Korean War will finally lead to the Third World War" and the North could hold its own in a "fire-to-fire standoff."
The treaty withdrawal was partly symbolic. North Korea was already violating its provisions by secretly pursuing weapons development and flouting U.N. safeguards. Washington believes it already has one or two nuclear bombs.
The declaration heightened tension as the United States and its allies seek a diplomatic solution, although Pyongyang's action could mean that it is trying to pressure the United States into making concessions. North Korea wants Washington to sign a nonaggression treaty and give it economic aid.
The United States initially took a lower-key approach than its allies.
"This is not at all unexpected," said John Bolton, U.S. undersecretary of state for arms control, who was visiting Thailand today. "The North Koreans were not adhering to the treaty when they were still a party to it."
Most other countries rushed to denounce the move and call for the decision to be reversed.
South Korean President Kim Dae Jung described the nuclear issue as a matter of "life and death," and said dialogue was the only way to solve it.
"The United States, Japan, China, Russia, the European Union – the whole world – is opposed to North Korea holding nuclear weapons," Kim said.
His National Security Council held an emergency meeting today. Afterward, the Foreign Ministry said the North's withdrawal was a "serious threat to peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula" and urged it to retract its decision.
Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, who is visiting Moscow for talks with Russian President Vladimir Putin, issued a statement demanding Pyongyang reverse its treaty withdrawal decision.
"We are deeply concerned. We see this is a very serious matter," Koizumi said.
"Our country through cooperation with the United States, South Korea and other countries concerned, as well as the International Atomic Energy Agency, will demand that North Korea goes back on its decision," he said.
In Tokyo, Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda said: "Our nation will strongly demand from North Korea a quick retraction of its statement and a positive response to solving the nuclear weapons problem.
Russia expressed "deep concern" that North Korea's move would harm global security.
The Russian Foreign Ministry said the treaty withdrawal "can only aggravate the already tense atmosphere around the Korean peninsula."
Russia said North Korea must "listen to the unanimous opinion of the world community," abide by its commitments to non-proliferation and enter into "equal and mutually beneficial dialogue . . . in the interests of international peace and stability."
There was no immediate comment from China, one of the key players in the region.
The French foreign minister, on a visit to China, said today that Asia, the United States and Europe must stand together.
"France condemns North Korea's decision," Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin said in a speech to students at Shanghai's Fudan University. "North Korea must understand that it has no other choice but to denounce its nuclear program."
There was no immediate response from North Korea to the pleas.
However, only hours later, its official news agency, KCNA, carried a newspaper article warning against "the reckless military and political moves of the U.S. warmongers."
"A new Korean War will finally lead to the Third World War," it said. "Let us see who will win and who will be defeated in the fire-to-fire standoff."
The North Korean announcement came as Bill Richardson, a former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and current New Mexico governor, met Thursday in his state with two North Korean envoys in what observers hoped could augur an easing of tension.
Richardson, who has acted as an intermediary in past disputes with North Korea, planned to meet the envoys again today. His role emerged after U.S. officials said they were willing to talk to North Korea, but demanded that it "promptly and verifiably" dismantle its nuclear weapons programs.
The 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty is a cornerstone in the world effort to stop the spread of nuclear weapons.
Only four other countries – Cuba, India, Israel and Pakistan – are not signatories, though Cuba is a member of a treaty establishing a nuclear-free zone in Latin America.
Jitters over North Korea helped push down stock prices in Tokyo and the Japanese yen. The Nikkei Stock Average slid 0.32 percent, and the dollar rose 0.95 yen from a day ago.
South Korea's main index dipped right after the announcement but recovered later in the day to close down 0.3 percent. Markets elsewhere in the region – Hong Kong, Sydney, Taiwan and the Philippines – shrugged the fears off and closed higher.
© 2003 Washington Post Newsweek Interactive