North Korea warned yesterday that it would regard any sanctions imposed on it by Japan as a declaration of war and would hit back with an "effective physical" response.
It also said it would reconsider its participation in six-nation talks aimed at ending the nuclear stand-off if a "provocative campaign" under way in Japan against the country continued, a foreign ministry spokesman said.
The outburst came after Japan said it would halt aid shipments to the impoverished Stalinist state in a dispute over the fate of Japanese nationals abducted by North Korean agents during the Cold War.
It also came amid efforts to jump-start stalled talks on the nuclear stand-off three months after Pyongyang failed to show for a scheduled fourth round.
"If sanctions are applied against the DPRK [North Korea] ..., we will regard it as a declaration of war against our country and promptly react to the action by an effective physical method," the unidentified spokesman said in a statement carried by the official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA).
Japan swiftly shrugged off the North Korean warning, with Prime Min-ister Junichiro Koizumi suggesting the threat of an "effective physical" response might be part of a political strategy by Pyongyang.
"We have to look carefully at what their true intentions are," Koizumi said in Tokyo.
More than two-thirds of Japanese support sanctions against the Stalinist state, according to a newspaper poll, to punish Pyongyang for falsely claiming that human remains it passed to Japan belonged to two Japanese abductees.
One of those kidnapped to train spies in Japanese language and culture was Megumi Yokota, abducted in 1977 as a 13-year-old schoolgirl.
Tokyo announced last week that DNA tests showed ashes handed to a Japanese delegation last month did not, as Pyongyang claimed, belong to Yokota.
The finding reignited anger in Japan against North Korea and Tokyo froze shipments of food aid to the destitute country.
A Japanese official said on Tuesday that the US had warned Japan to be cautious about imposing sanctions on North Korea because the unpredictable regime could "out-manoeuvre" such a move.
Seoul feared that sanctions could derail efforts to end the nuclear standoff.
"The stance of our government is that peaceful dialogue rather than sanctions or a blockade will do more to draw North Korea into the dialogue table," Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon said.
The North Korean foreign-ministry statement accused Japan of doctoring the DNA test for political reasons and insisted that the human remains were those of Yokota.
They had been handed to Japanese authorities by Yokota's husband and it was "unimaginable" he would give them the ashes of anyone else, the spokesman said.
Instead, elements in Japan were trying to revive a long-standing row over the abductions "because they needed a subterfuge to justify Japan's militarization, hold in check any improvement in the bilateral relations and step up their political and military interference in regional issues," he said.
He accused the US of supporting this because it wanted to provoke a war on the Korean Peninsula.
North Korea has returned five kidnap victims to Japan after admitting in 2002 to the abductions in return for an aid package and talks on normalizing relations.
But the families of eight other abductees whom Pyongyang claims are dead believe they are still alive and being detained in North Korea because they know too much about the secretive regime.