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Wednesday, October 04, 2006

China urges calm after N.Korea triggers alarm

SEOUL (Reuters) - China, the closest North Korea has to an ally, on Wednesday called for restraint after the reclusive state said it planned a nuclear test in a move the United States said would threaten world peace.

"We hope that North Korea will exercise necessary calm and restraint over the nuclear test issue," Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao said in a short statement on Wednesday on the ministry's Web site (www.fmprc.gov.cn).

Liu urged a negotiated settlement, saying countries should "not take actions that escalate tensions".

The United States, France and Japan have all pressed for the issue to be dealt with at the United Nations.

But Beijing wants it resolved through six-country talks set up to end North Korea's nuclear weapons program.

North Korea has snubbed Those talks -- involving the two Koreas, China, Japan, Russia and the United States -- for almost a year.

It has refused to return until the United States ends a crackdown on North Korean offshore bank accounts, which Washington says is aimed at ending suspected illicit activities and has nothing to do with the six-party process.

Analysts and officials said Pyongyang's nuclear test announcement on Tuesday could well be an attempt to push the United States into direct talks about ending the crackdown.

South Korea's Unification Minister, Lee Jong-seok, said he saw a strong element of trying to apply pressure on the United States.

"In the event efforts to resume the six-party talks break down, the possibility of a North Korean nuclear test is high," Lee told a parliamentary committee.

Analysts say North Korea probably could make a nuclear weapon but lacks the technology to make it small enough to fit on a missile. They also note that in its July test, North Korea's long-range missile fizzled out just after take-off.


The Stalinist state has triggered diplomatic crises in the past to get its voice heard.

Tension on the divided Korean peninsula has risen sharply since July when Pyongyang defied international warnings by test-firing missiles.

North Korea argues that its hand has been forced by what a North Korean diplomat called Washington's "proclamation of war" by threatening economic sanctions.

"These kinds of threats of nuclear war and tensions and pressure by the United States compel us to conduct a nuclear test," North Korean embassy spokesman Pak Myong Guk told Reuters in Canberra.

"Now the situation around the Korean peninsula is very tense," Pak said. "It may be breaking out (in) a war at any time, I think."

Diplomats who have visited North Korea in recent months say officials they have spoken to seem to genuinely believe that the United States -- which keeps 30,000 troops stationed in the South -- is set to bring down their government.

They doubt the risk of sanctions and more damage to an already subsistence economy will deter the Pyongyang government, which rights groups say has one of the world's worst human rights records.


The North's latest move is certain to dominate talks from this weekend when Japan's new prime minister, Shinzo Abe, visits South Korea and China.

Some analysts said North Korea may have timed its announcement partly in the hope that China and South Korea will persuade Japan to soften its approach to North Korea.

"Japan and America took the initiative at the U.N. Security Council on sanctions after the (July) missile tests, and they want to put a brake on that," said Masao Okonogi, Korea expert at Keio University in Tokyo.

"They hope China and South Korea will persuade Japan (not to take a hard line)," Okonogi said.

Many analysts said the chief target is probably Washington.

"Pyongyang may see this as a 'win-win' gambit," wrote Ralph Cossa, president of the Pacific Forum CSIS think tank.

"Either Washington gives in to its demands for direct negotiations -- which is unlikely -- or renewed disputes about Washington's 'inflexibility' will drive deeper wedges between Washington and its negotiating partners, especially in Seoul and Beijing," Cossa said.

Okonogi noted that the North Korean announcement came as discussions have started over sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program.

"North Korea thinks the United States can't deal with both at the same time," he said.

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