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North Korea warns of 'catastrophe'

With one of the largest armed forces in the world North Korea says it is ready for any military confrontation
With one of the largest armed forces in the world North Korea says it is ready for any military confrontation

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start quoteIf they, ignorant of their rival, dare provoke a nuclear war, the army and people of [North Korea] ... will rise up to mete out determined and merciless punishmentend quote
-- North Korea's Defense Minister Kim Il Chol
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A nuclear watchdog agency raises concerns about North Korea's latest move. CNN's David Ensor reports (December 23)
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CNN's Christiane Amanpour talks to Mohamed ElBaradei about Iran, Iraq and North Korea. (Part 1)
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(Part 2)
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Under a 1994 agreement North Korea promised to give up its nuclear weapons program and allow inspections to verify that it did not have the material such weapons would require. The country has yet to allow the inspections.

PYONGYANG, North Korea (CNN) -- The refusal by the United States to negotiate with North Korea over its nuclear program could lead to an "uncontrollable catastrophe," North Korea's state-run Rodong Sinmun newspaper has warned.

In Seoul, the South Korean Cabinet was told that North Korea is moving nuclear fuel rods containing enough plutonium to build two warheads out of a holding area at a nuclear plant that had been sealed.

The United States has been trying to handle the North Korean nuclear crisis diplomatically as it gears up for possible war with Iraq.

Over the weekend, U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell consulted with allies in Asia about North Korea's moves.

But the North Korean newspaper said only the United States and North Korea can come to a settlement.

"If the U.S. persistently tries to internationalize the pending issue between the DPRK [Democratic People's Republic of Korea] and the U.S. in a bid to flee from its responsibility, it will push the situation to an uncontrollable catastrophe," the newspaper said.

In addition, North Korean Defense Minister Kim Il Chol was quoted by the state news agency as saying the crisis was reaching "an extremely dangerous phase."

In the event of a nuclear conflict, he said, North Korea would deal a "merciless punishment" to the United States.

"If they, ignorant of their rival, dare provoke a nuclear war, the army and people of the DPRK led by Kim Jong Il, the invincible commander, will rise up to mete out determined and merciless punishment to the U.S. imperialist aggressors with the might of single-hearted unity more powerful than A-bomb," he said.

While North Korea has said it wants to open negotiations with the United States, U.S. officials have so far refused, saying the United States will not enter into dialogue in response to threats or broken commitments.

South Korea's outgoing president, Kim Dae-jung, condemned Pyongyang's decision to take down monitoring cameras, break seals on its nuclear plants and move the fuel rods.

"We have said it repeatedly and sometimes we presented it on documents that we can never go along with North Korea's weapons of mass destruction, including missiles or nuclear weapons, and that this is the absolute condition for talks," Kim said.

While Bush administration officials said they are continuing to work diplomatically, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld warned North Korea not to assume that the United States was not capable of acting militarily on two fronts, even as it prepares for a war with Iraq.

"If they do, it would be a mistake," Rumsfeld said at a news conference Monday.

If necessary, Rumsfeld said, the U.S. military was perfectly capable of fighting both North Korea and Iraq simultaneously.

"We are capable of fighting two major regional conflicts," Rumsfeld told a Pentagon briefing.

"We're capable of winning decisively in one and swiftly defeating in the case of the other. And let there be no doubt about it."

Over the weekend, the North started removing the safety seals and blocking surveillance cameras placed by international monitoring agencies at facilities in Yongbyong.

On Tuesday, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said the North Koreans were continuing to dismantle the monitoring devices and break seals on its nuclear facilities.

IAEA head Mohamed ElBaradei said North Korea had unilaterally continued the process of disrupting IAEA safeguard measures at its nuclear facilities.

"On 23-24 December, the DPRK cut most of the seals and impeded the functioning of surveillance equipment installed at both the fuel rod fabrication plant and the reprocessing facility," ElBaradei said.

"To date, seals have been cut and surveillance equipment impeded at a total of three facilities at Yongbyong: the 5 megawatt reactor including the associated spent fuel pond, the fuel rod fabrication plant and the reprocessing facility."

Unless the IAEA is able to reinstate its safeguard measures without delay at the facilities, ElBaradei said, it will not be able to provide assurances that North Korea is not diverting nuclear material to nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices as required by its safeguard agreement pursuant to the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty.

ElBaradei said the rapidly deteriorating situation in the DPRK raises "grave non-proliferation concerns." He is currently consulting with the chairman and member states of the IAEA board of governors on ways and means to address this "disturbing development," an IAEA statement said.

In an interview with CNN on Monday, ElBaradei said not only have the North Koreans taken "the cameras and surveillance verification monitoring equipment from the power reactor where they supposedly want to produce electricity, but [they] continue to take all the equipment from the spent fuel and the reprocessing plant which would enable them, if they restart the program, to make plutonium in a pretty few months and that's a pretty disturbing trend."

North Korea agreed to give up its nuclear program in 1994 in exchange for new reactors and shipments of alternative fuel oil.

North Korean officials said they have been forced to restart the program because a U.S.-led consortium decided to stop the alternative shipments after Pyongyang disclosed it had an active nuclear weapons program. The United States believes North Korea already has as many as three nuclear warheads in addition to the plutonium that could be used to make two more.

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