Rhetoric Fuels Crisis Over Korea : Nuclear dispute: Taunts between North and South escalate. U.S. calls situation serious but not 'brink of war.' Pyongyang also threatens Japanese leaders with 'digging own grave.'

TIMES STAFF WRITER

As Assistant Secretary of State Winston Lord pronounced the Korean peninsula "in a serious situation" but not on the "brink of war," North and South Korea continued to escalate their fiery rhetoric Saturday, exchanging martial taunts and warnings.

Addressing the conflict over North Korea's refusal to allow complete inspection of its nuclear facilities, Lord said, "It's a time for firm resolve, patience, preparedness, but it's not an imminent crisis."

Nevertheless, angry words from both sides served to fuel a crisis-like atmosphere.

In South Korea, Prime Minister Lee Hoi Chang was quoted by a Korean news agency as admonishing his troops at a military camp near the border to "faithfully do their best to drive off any North Korean aggression with just one stroke."

In turn, North Korea, speaking through its official news agency, condemned South Korea for placing its armed forces on alert and called the decision a "very dangerous development which may cause a catastrophic crisis on the Korean peninsula."

The South Koreans said they had readied their troops only after North Korea put its much larger army on alert.

North Korea maintains a military force of more than 1 million, while South Korea has armed forces of 650,000, bolstered by 35,000 U.S. troops.

Japan also drew a sharp rebuke from the North Koreans for supporting a hard-line stance against them.

The Korean Workers Party daily, Rodong Sinmun, the main newspaper in Pyongyang, warned that "if the situation on the Korean peninsula gets worse and a war breaks out, Japan will never be safe either."

Attacking Japanese Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa and Foreign Minister Tsutomu Hata for demanding more inspections of North Korea's nuclear facilities, Rodong Sinmun said, "The reckless military action of the Japanese reactionaries against the Korean people will result in digging their own grave."

Lord, who is in charge of East Asian and Pacific affairs at the State Department, said in an appearance on CNN's "Newsmaker Saturday" that the Clinton Administration's own display of words and diplomacy in the conflict is at a "perfect pitch, perfect level of rhetoric."

After a series of negotiations at U.N. headquarters in New York and Geneva last year, U.S. officials believed that they had persuaded the North Koreans to abide by the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and allow inspections of their nuclear facilities by the International Atomic Energy Agency.

The IAEA has been trying to determine whether North Korea is diverting the plutonium that comes out of its nuclear power plants for use as fuel in nuclear bombs.

Lord said "most in the intelligence community think there's a better than 50% chance that they have one or two bombs."

But when inspectors arrived in early March, the North Koreans refused to grant them access to all their nuclear plants.

As a result, the IAEA board of governors in Vienna announced that it could not guarantee that North Korea had no clandestine nuclear weapons program, and the agency referred the issue to the U.N. Security Council.

The United States then suspended talks with North Korea and introduced a resolution in the Security Council calling on Pyongyang to submit to full inspections of its nuclear facilities within a month.

China, an ally of the Communist North Korean regime, has balked at the resolution. Because China has a veto, the Security Council cannot act unless China agrees or abstains.

Appearing on the news show with Lord, both Donald Gregg, who was the George Bush Administration's ambassador to South Korea, and Rep. Gary L. Ackerman (D-N.Y.) suggested that the Administration should do more to defuse the situation since North Korea is, as Gregg put it, "the strongest conventional military threat that we face anywhere in the world."

Gregg suggested that the Administration needs to open a new channel of communication with the North Koreans. With its official negotiations now suspended, the United States apparently has relied only on public statements made in Washington and at the United Nations deploring North Korea's refusal to allow the inspections.

Lord said, however, that while there have been no behind-the-scenes contacts with North Korea, the Clinton Administration is trying to reach influential North Koreans with a public message that they have a choice: "They can stay in isolation and possible confrontation or they can take the diplomatic track we've offered them and look to better economic and political relations with the world."

Lord acknowledged that the Administration had been hampered by the Chinese refusal to support a Security Council resolution calling for North Korean cooperation.

But Lord said he hoped that the Chinese might agree to another form of pressure--perhaps a statement, rather than a formal resolution--urging North Korean cooperation. A statement, however, lacks the moral or legal force of a resolution.

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