North Korea denied yesterday ever admitting to US officials that it had a secret nuclear weapons program and said it would unleash a ``sea of fire'' if the US persists in challenging the communist country.
The warning, issued over the North's state-run media and reported by South Korea's Yonhap news agency, came just hours ahead of a much-anticipated visit to South Korea by US Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly.
Kelly arrived in Seoul yesterday evening for talks with President-elect Roh Moo-hyun and other officials.
Washington and its allies are intensifying efforts to find a diplomatic solution to an escalating crisis with North Korea. Kelly will also travel to China, Singapore, Indonesia and Japan.
The day before, North Korea sent sharply mixed messages, vowing to "smash US nuclear maniacs" in a "holy war" while its diplomats told an American governor in the US their country had no intention of building nuclear bombs.
Sunday's denial hits at one of the flash points of the standoff.
In October, the US announced the North had admitted to having an atomic weapons program while Kelly was in Pyongyang for talks.
Such a program would violate a 1994 accord with the US, which pledged North Korea energy supplies if it froze operations at its nuclear facilities. Washington retaliated in December by halting oil shipments promised under the deal.
North Korea appeared to backtrack yesterday.
``The claim that we admitted developing nuclear weapons is an invention fabricated by the US with sinister intentions,'' Yonhap quoted the official Rodong Sinmun newspaper as saying.
The newspaper blamed the US for the current crisis and warned: "If the United States evades its responsibility and challenges us, we'll turn the citadel of imperialists into a sea of fire."
When negotiators were hammering out the 1994 accord -- over similar concerns about North Korea's nuclear intentions -- Pyongyang also warned that it would turn the South Korean capital of Seoul into a "sea of fire."
The US believes North Korea has one or two nuclear weapons and could make several more within six months, if it reactivates a plutonium reprocessing plant.
On Saturday, a North Korean official said that the plant north of Pyongyang was ready for operation. Pyongyang further upped the stakes by threatening to resume long-range missile tests.
South Korea vowed again yesterday to pursue a diplomatic solution, after National Security Adviser Yim Sung-joon returned from a visit to Washington and Tokyo.
"The government's consistent position is that it will do its best to resolve the North Korean nuclear issue peacefully through diplomacy," Yim said.
In New Mexico, Governor Bill Richardson met with North Korean Deputy UN Ambassador Han Song-ryol, who assured him the North wanted improved ties with the US and had no plans to build a bomb.