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North Korea: Nuclear Standoff Intensifies

The standoff over North Korea's nuclear-weapons program is intensifying. North Korean media has been calling today for national unity, urging people to rally around leader Kim Jong Il. The commentary comes after the United States rejected Pyongyang's demand for direct two-way talks over its nuclear program. North Korea on 10 February announced for the first time it has nuclear weapons and is pulling out of six-party talks aimed at curbing its nuclear ambitions.

12 February 2005 -- The latest crisis began on 10 February when the North announced for the first time it has nuclear weapons, and said it is pulling out of international negotiations.

Instead, it called for direct two-way talks with Washington -- a call the U.S. rejected yesterday.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan said: "The six-party talks are the way to resolve this matter in a peaceful and diplomatic way. We have also made very clear that North Korea has ample opportunity to visit directly with us in the context of the six-party talks."

The nuclear crisis erupted in late 2002 after the United States said North Korea had admitted to developing highly enriched uranium for weapons.

Pyongyang has hinted in the past that it has nuclear weapons, but the 10 February statement was the clearest sign yet that it had already made them.

So far, negotiations on resolving the crisis have involved the United States, China, South Korea, Japan, and Russia as well as North Korea. The six parties have held three rounds of talks since August 2003, but the process has stalled.

After the North's latest announcement, China's Foreign Ministry said Beijing hoped those talks would continue.

The statement came in a news bulletin on Chinese television: "China's Foreign Ministry spokesman Kong Chuan, in response to a question from a reporter, said that the Chinese government hoped the six-way talks would continue. Kong Chuan said that the government had taken note of North Korea's announcement that it would not partake in talks, and that it had already developed nuclear weapons. It is currently monitoring developments. China insists that North Korea should not have nuclear weapons and wants it to have peace and stability. The central government hopes the six-way talks will continue."

Experts say it is unclear if the North really does have nuclear weapons, or if it is merely trying to get attention -- and aid.

Prime Minister John Howard of Australia, which has also helped mediate in the crisis, said there might be an element of bluff.

"There is an element of bluff, I'm sure, there's an element of exaggeration -- even if she [North Korea] does have some nuclear capacity it has probably been exaggerated. But nobody should imagine that this is anything other than a real problem and one that has to be handled with a great deal of skill and balance," Howard said.

With the standoff intensifying, newspapers in South Korea have been issuing their own strident editorials today.

The popular "JoongAng Daily" urged the government to stand firm against North Korea and any nuclear problems that "decisively threaten our national security."

(compiled from wire reports)