INTERNATIONAL

U.S. stance provocative, says Pyongyang

SINGAPORE Dec. 25. The ongoing shadow-boxing between North Korea and the U.S. has acquired a new dimension.

The Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), as the North is officially known, today accused the U.S. of creating a situation that could lead to a "nuclear war''.

A diplomatic escalation of their bilateral tensions has been triggered by Pyongyang's denunciation of Washington's objections to the current North Korean preparations for reactivating a mini-scale nuclear power reactor that could yield weapons-grade plutonium.

Kim Il Chol, North Korean Minister of People's Armed Forces, accused the ``U.S. hawks'' of "pushing the situation on the Korean peninsula to the brink of a nuclear war''. At a meeting in Pyongyang on Tuesday, he said that the `arrogant' action of the American `hawks' was beginning to push the skewed U.S.-DPRK equation towards "an extremely dangerous phase'' in the context of Washington's `groundless' claims that North Korea had already "pushed ahead with a nuclear (arms) programme''.

The DPRK could not, therefore, remain "a passive onlooker''. The North Korean Minister said: "If they (the American authorities), ignorant of (the capabilities of ) their rival (North Korea), dare provoke a nuclear war, the army and the people of the DPRK ... .will rise up to mete out determined and merciless punishment to the U.S. imperialist aggressors''.

The North Koreans would indeed bank on their sense of "single-hearted unity'' which was "more powerful than the A-bomb''.

Addressing the North Korean People's Army, on the occasion of the 11th anniversary of Kim Jong Il's assumption of office as the Supreme Commander of the KPA, he said the DPRK now had "modern offensive and defensive means capable of defeating any formidable enemies''.

While the cutting-edge assertiveness of the Minister could be attributed largely to his depiction of Mr. Kim as the "invincible commander'' of the KPA, diplomats and analysts in the Asia Pacific region do not also dismiss Pyongyang's latest exercises in self-expression of the anti-U.S. kind as mere propaganda.

Shuttle diplomacy

The seriousness of the North Korean challenge to the U.S. is reflected by Washington's moves to engage its friends and allies in the Asia Pacific region in a bid to try and stop Pyongyang in its tracks.

Considered a strong possibility is a new round of shuttle diplomacy by the U.S. State Department official, James Kelly, in this region.

While seasoned diplomats from countries allied to the U.S. in North East Asia concede in conversations behind the scenes that North Korea still remains a `mystery', there is no doubt that Pyongyang's announcements and actions are viewed as critical aspects of an evolving crisis.

While South Korea is likely to hold a key internal meeting tomorrow to assess the security implications at stake, Japan and the U.S. have stayed in touch even as Washington has widened the circle of consultations to include Russia and China.

The big picture that the U.S. and its allies have so far sketched out is that of a North Korea embarking on a "calculative strategy'' of using the accumulated stockpile of "spent fuel'' at an experimental plutonium-yielding reactor to use for the immediate production of nuclear weapons.