China and Russia sought on Wednesday to delay a Security Council condemnation of North Korea's nuclear arms program, a day after a top North Korean general said that any sanctions or blockades initiated by the US would be considered a "complete breach" of the truce that ended hostilities on the peninsula 50 years ago.
The letter added that if the US took such actions, the North Korean army would "immediately take strong and merciless retaliatory measures" and promised that "horrible disasters" would befall the South Korean population.
The July 1 letter from "the chief of the Panmunjom Mission of the Korean People's Army," contrasted sharply in tone though not in overall content from a letter the North Korean foreign minister, Paek Nam-sun, sent the Security Council last week.
This week's harsh and unusual follow-up to the original letter led some diplomats to wonder if there is an internal North Korean dispute over what mix of conciliatory language and brute threats should be used in dealing with the UN and the US.
"The meaning is not clear, because we don't know if the army is speaking for Kim Jong-il," one senior Asian diplomat said, referring to the North Korean leader. "But it is unusual to have the Army communicating with the United Nations."
While some Asian diplomats here played down the threats in the letter as typical bombast, it was reminiscent of warnings from Pyongyang in 1994 about how it would react to sanctions -- warnings that led former US president Bill Clinton to prepare for the possibility of war on the peninsula.
As the Security Council discussed the issue here, State Department officials as well as representatives of the National Security Council and the Pentagon were meeting with China's vice foreign minister, Wang Yi (
Richard Boucher, the State Department spokesman, said on Wednesday, "We've discussed with him issues of nonproliferation, issues of North Korea, issues of South Asia." He added, "He's reiterated Chinese support for a non-nuclear Korean peninsula and further explored with us the cooperation that we have with China to bring North Korea's nuclear programs to an end."
In Washington, a senior diplomat said that China was continuing to press the US to negotiate directly with North Korea. At a three-way meeting in Beijing in April, North Korea said it was speeding ahead in its effort to reprocess spent fuel rods into plutonium, which can be used as fuel for nuclear weapons. But these officials hinted that Pyongyang might be willing to trade its nuclear program, or part of it, for aid and security guarantees.
President Bush has insisted that he will not give in to "blackmail." He has said talks must include South Korea and Japan. The Korean issue came up yesterday in discussions with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia.
UN diplomats made it clear that, regardless of what the Korean letters said, the US, Britain and France believe that a Security Council discussion and statement are needed, in part because so little progress has been made in the past three months' worth of diplomatic overtures from China, Japan and South Korea.
As one Council diplomat put it on Wednesday, "The Chinese have been saying: The time isn't right" for a Security Council statement, arguing that more time is needed for diplomatic pressure by China, Japan and South Korea. The diplomat added, "The US, France and the UK are saying there is no contradiction between the two efforts; they can be complementary."