North Korea yesterday threatened South Korea with "unspeakable disaster" if Seoul aligned itself with Washington against the Stalinist state.
The threat was delivered in a keynote speech by North Korea's chief delegate on the opening day of four-day economic cooperation talks between the two Koreas in Pyongyang, according to the official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA).
It was the strongest attack on South Korea from its neighbor since the nuclear crisis erupted seven months ago and constituted the Pyongyang regime's first public reaction to last week's US-South Korea summit in Washington.
At the summit, US President George W. Bush and South Korean leader Roh Moo-hyun pledged in a joint statement to resolve the nuclear crisis peacefully, but said "further steps" may be needed against Pyongyang.
Since the summit, Seoul has adopted an increasingly hard line against Pyongyang, saying its policy of engagement and economic cooperation with North Korea could be scrapped if the regime raised nuclear tensions further.
North Korea's chief delegate Pak Chang-ryon expressed Pyongyang's "deep regret" at the summit.
A furious Pak said South Korea could be heading for "unspeakable disaster" if it toed the US line.
"The South side should bear in mind that the inter-Korean relations will be put at the lowest ebb and the South side will sustain an unspeakable disaster if it turns to confrontation," KCNA quoted the delegate as saying.
In the past, North Korea, which has hundreds of artillery and rockets targeting Seoul, has threatened to turn the South Korean capital into a "sea of fire."
But since the nuclear crisis erupted in October, North Korea has until now reserved its harshest rhetoric for Japan and the US.
However, South Korea's soft-line policy towards the North has apparently shifted following the US summit, with Roh accepting the need for "further steps," a reference to the use of possible sanctions or even military force against Pyongyang, measures Roh has spoken out against in the past.
Roh has until now opposed any form of pressure, including the threat of sanctions or military action, against North Korea.
"The attitude taken by the South side as regards the `joint statement' is now arousing great disappointment and concern at home and abroad," Pak said.
"We express deep regret at this and hold that there should be an understandable clarification of it from the South side," he said.
Earlier, in his opening remarks at the talks, South Korean delegation leader Vice Finance and Economy Minister Kim Gwang-Lim warned North Korea that it risked losing the benefits of inter-Korean economic cooperation by escalating the nuclear weapons crisis.
"It is our precondition that North Korea's nuclear problem should not worsen to allow smooth progress in inter-Korean economic cooperation," Kim said.
Kim called for an early settlement of the nuclear crisis, which he said was hurting the South Korean economy, according to South Korean pool reports.
In Pyongyang, North Korean officials stressed inter-Korean unity, blaming the US for heightening the nuclear crisis, said Jo Myong-kyun, spokesman for the South Korean delegation.
Pool reports said North Korea asked for 50,000 tonnes of rice from South Korea.
The South's chief delegate, however, said that Seoul's donations would include rice shipments if Pyongyang ensured their transparent distribution.