In a day of confusing signals, North Korea threatened Saturday to resume testing long-range missiles, even while insisting in talks in the United States that it has no intention of building nuclear weapons.
Speaking the day after his country withdrew from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, North Korean Ambassador to China Choe Jin Su said in Beijing that because the United States had "nullified" a bilateral security arrangement, "we believe we cannot go along with the self-imposed missile moratorium any longer."
He insisted that the Pyongyang regime has the right to develop any devices "to save us from a nuclear attack by the United States."
The threat of missile tests was the latest in a series of provocative actions by North Korea, part of an apparent attempt by the communist nation to provoke a crisis that would force concessions from the United States. The campaign has drawn the isolated country into a diplomatic duel with the U.S. and other countries as well as the United Nations.
As part of the campaign, a North Korean diplomat in Vienna suggested that his country might be able to restart a nuclear reactor within weeks, meaning that spent fuel rods would be available for nuclear devices sooner. And, in Pyongyang, North Korea's capital, speakers at a huge rally denounced Americans as "nuclear maniacs."
Yet amid these threatening words, North Korean diplomat Han Song Ryol said that his nation "has no intentions of building nuclear weapons," according to New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson.
"He told me that in a dialogue with the United States, North Korea would discuss America's concerns over verifying its nuclear program. I think that's positive," the Democrat and former U.N. ambassador told reporters in Santa Fe after three days of talks with North Korean diplomats, who had requested the meeting.
Richardson insisted that the talks were unofficial and that he was presenting the Bush administration's policy. He made no recommendations but frequently mentioned the need for the parties to talk.
The U.S. government responded quickly to the latest North Korean statements.
State Department spokeswoman Nancy Beck said that in their talks with Richardson, the North Koreans "apparently did not address issues of concern to the international community," such as cessation of the nuclear program.
And Beck repeated the Bush administration's condemnation of North Korea's announcement Friday that it would withdraw from the Nonproliferation Treaty, a keystone arms control agreement designed to limit the size of the world's nuclear club.
With its withdrawal from the treaty and the threatened missile test, North Korea "continued to take steps in the wrong direction ... that would raise tensions in the international community," she added. Saturday's threat of a new missile test was aimed not only at the United States, but also at Japan, which has strongly supported the U.S. in the crisis.
Although North Korea is not known to have a missile prepared for a test launch, analysts said it is working on a Taepodong 2 that could enable Pyongyang to deliver a nuclear-size payload to the United States.
Experts warned that a test would be dangerous and destabilizing because of the chance that the missile could strike a ship or aircraft, or fall short and strike the Japanese mainland.
"There's a real propensity for an accident," said L. Gordon Flake, executive director of the Mansfield Center for Pacific Affairs in Washington.
North Korea shocked the world in 1998 by test-firing a three-stage Taepodong 1 missile over Japan.
Japan Remains Calm
Japan reacted calmly today to the news of possible missile tests as a senior official told Kyodo News that the government intends to assess the situation in a "coolheaded manner and not overreact."
As the news spread Saturday night and this morning, Japanese went about their business as usual, lining up at popular restaurants, shopping and meeting with friends.
"Even if they say they'll pull out of the moratorium, I don't see them launching," said Satoshi Hayashi, a 23-year-old Tokyo businessman out taking a walk. "They're probably just buying time to negotiate with the U.S. while Washington is diverted by Iraq."
Still, this is hardly good news for Japan, which has no diplomatic relations with the North and is viewed by Pyongyang as a historical enemy after Japan's occupation of the Korean peninsula from 1910 to 1945.
In a declaration signed after the Sept. 17 summit between Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, Pyongyang pledged to keep in place beyond 2003 its moratorium on missile testing. As the situation deteriorated in November, however, and relations between the two countries worsened over the issue of Japanese abducted by North Korea, Pyongyang threatened to end the moratorium.
In New Mexico, Richardson said he believed the meetings in Santa Fe were "positive and constructive. I think they've eased tensions a bit."
He said it is typical for North Korea to try to step up pressure on its adversaries, even as they are offering negotiations.
"It's almost an art form to talk with them," he told CNN. "This is almost negotiating in a bazaar environment."
Richardson said he talked by phone at least three times Saturday with Secretary of State Colin L. Powell. Powell made no statement, and State Department officials said he is awaiting Richardson's final report on the nine hours of talks.
U.S. Moves Slowly
The Bush administration has been pushing the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna, and perhaps also the U.N. Security Council, to consider North Korea's moves to restart its nuclear program.
But the administration has been trying to move slowly and play down the sense of crisis, because it does not want the North Korean issue to interfere with its top priority: to disarm or topple the Iraqi government.
North Korea continued its shrill rhetoric elsewhere, as well.
In Vienna, North Korea's representative to the IAEA, Son Mun San, said that his nation could soon restart the nuclear reprocessing plant at its Yongbyon nuclear complex. He said the plant is in a state of "readiness" and could be restarted in a matter of weeks.
Since the confrontation began, the North has removed seals and monitoring cameras placed at the complex by the IAEA. The regime kicked out three inspectors who were there to ensure that Pyongyang didn't attempt to resume operations at the complex.
In Pyongyang, a million North Koreans reportedly participated in a rally featuring speakers who vowed to "smash U.S. nuclear maniacs" and "revenge with blood" any step by a foreign power to challenge their nation's sovereignty.
"If the United States brings dark clouds of war to hang over this land, the army and the people [of North Korea] will remove the land of the United States from the Earth, and root out the very source of evil and war," one speaker said, according to the official news agency. The report could not be independently verified.
Meanwhile, in Seoul, about 20,000 South Koreans rallied in front of City Hall, waving American flags in a demonstration of support for United States policy and the presence of American troops on the peninsula. The rally, which was organized by church groups and veterans of the Korean War, was designed to counter a wave of large anti-American protests in recent weeks.
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State James A. Kelly is due today in Seoul to speak to South Korean officials, who are preparing their own plans to mediate the North Korea standoff.
A South Korean official involved in the mission complained, however, that the quickening of North Korean threats is frustrating their effort.
"It's shocking how fast they are going. It's too much, we can't deal effectively like this," said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Lee Dong Bok, a former South Korean intelligence official, said the North Korean strategy is to engage the United States in direct negotiations and to thwart potential mediators such as Japan or South Korea.
He said the recklessness of the North Korean strategy was a sign of Pyongyang's desperation.
"North Korea is a country which is literally bankrupt, which has lost the capacity to pull itself out of the economic quagmire through normal means. The nuclear card is the only card that North Korea has at its disposal," Lee said.
Times staff writers Lianne Hart in Santa Fe, N.M., and Mark Magnier in Tokyo contributed to this report.