North Korea and the US traded harsh criticism yesterday, with a US official describing the communist nation as a "hellish nightmare" and the North accusing Washington of "all sorts of lies and plots."
The accusations came amid uncertainty over prospects for a new round of talks on North Korea's suspected development of nuclear weapons, despite South Korean claims that the process was moving forward.
In Seoul, US Undersecretary of State John Bolton said North Korea had not agreed to a US proposal for multilateral talks, and was instead sticking to a demand for bilateral talks with Washington like a "one-note piano concerto."
"The ball is in North Korea's court," said Bolton, who was in Beijing earlier this week to discuss diplomatic efforts to resolve the nuclear standoff. In April, China hosted and participated in contentious talks involving the US and North Korea.
"The key now is to get South Korea and Japan, and ultimately Russia and others, a seat at the table," Bolton said in a speech at a hotel. "Those with a direct stake in the outcome must be part of the process. On this point, we will not waver."
In remarks likely to infuriate North Korea, Bolton described its totalitarian leader, Kim Jong-il, as a "tyrannical dictator" and sharply criticized his nation's human rights record and missile exports.
"While he lives like royalty in Pyongyang, he keeps hundreds of thousands of people locked in prison camps with millions more mired in abject poverty, scrounging the ground for food. For many in North Korea, life is a hellish nightmare," Bolton said.
North Korea, in turn, said the US should be brought to "international justice" for justifying the Iraq war with "misinformation" about former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction.
Repeating a long-standing accusation, it accused Washington of building up its forces in South Korea as a prelude to an invasion of North Korea.
"It should also be sternly tried by human conscience for having slandered [North Korea] with all sorts of lies and plots and perpetrated pressure and blackmail against it," Rodong Sinmun, a North Korean newspaper, said yesterday.
Bolton said the US and its allies were planning "operational training exercises" to prevent the trafficking of missiles and weapons of mass destruction. Impoverished North Korea, which has earned large amounts of hard cash from missile exports, would be a target of the so-called Proliferation Security Initiative.
"The days of [North Korean] blackmail are over. Kim Jong-il is dead wrong to think that developing nuclear weapons will improve his security," Bolton said.
He also criticized the UN Security Council, saying its credibility was at stake because it had failed to take up the North Korean nuclear issue.
"Unfortunately, the council is not playing the part it should," Bolton said.
Security Council deliberations on North Korea's nuclear threat could eventually lead to UN economic sanctions -- which the North has said it would consider a "declaration of war." China, North Korea's closest ally and a permanent member of the Security Council, had thwarted previous US attempts to have the council condemn the North over its nuclear ambitions.
South Korea, a US ally, prefers that all other diplomatic options be exhausted before the council takes up the issue. South Korean officials have been optimistic about prospects for new talks in Beijing.
The nuclear dispute flared in October, when US officials said North Korea admitted having a secret nuclear program in violation of international agreements.
Kim Sung-han, a South Korean analyst who attended Bolton's speech, described the American's comments as "nothing new."
"He seemed to be urging North Korea to quickly respond to the US proposal on talks, and seemed to give a message that the United States will wait for North Korea to respond, but will not wait forever," Kim said.
Bolton declined to comment on reports that some US officials believe North Korea is unlikely to back down on the nuclear issue, and that a change of government in Pyongyang is the ultimate solution.