North Korea (DPRK) vowed yesterday to strengthen its "nuclear deterrent force," dismissing the US' call for multilateral talks as a tactic to isolate Pyongyang.
"We will step up the strengthening of our nuclear deterrent force as a justified self-defence measure to counter the threat increasing daily from the US strategy to isolate and stifle North Korea," Pyongyang's Foreign Ministry said in a statement issued through the official KCNA news agency.
The Korean-language statement, published by South Korea's Yonhap news agency, said: "We have come to expect nothing from the so-called `multilateral talks' the United States is aiming for.
"The multilateral talks the United States is calling for clearly is not something to resolve the nuclear issue peacefully, but rather nothing more than a disguise for US moves to isolate and stifle us," it said.
Comments by the North Korean Foreign Ministry are judged by analysts to be more authoritative than the blustery state media threats Pyongyang issues nearly every day, which are generally dismissed as rhetoric.
The North's ruling party mouthpiece, the Rodong Sinmun daily, said yesterday: "The Iraqi war proved that disarmament leads to a war. Therefore, it is quite clear that the DPRK can never accept the US demand that it scrap its nuclear weapons program first."
Yesterday's foreign ministry statement came as US Secretary of State Colin Powell said the crisis over North Korea's nuclear ambitions was of the utmost importance.
"No issue is of greater urgency to the US than North Korea's nuclear weapons programs," Powell told a meeting of foreign ministers in the Cambodian capital Phnom Penh, according to a senior US State Department official.
"We can't help a North Korea that does not abandon the goal of having nuclear weapons," he told the annual gathering of ministers from Southeast Asian countries and their diplomatic partners from Asia, Europe and North America.
In Canberra, meanwhile, British Defence Secretary Geoff Hoon said North Korea needed to be isolated by the international community and its proliferation of weapons of mass destruction halted.
"We do need internationally to work together to isolate North Korea and to demonstrate that we will not tolerate the way in which they both develop and proliferate weapons of mass destruction," Hoon told Australia's National Press Club.
US officials have said North Korea is believed to have at least one or two nuclear weapons. Since April, North Korea has claimed that it had all but completed reprocessing 8,000 spent nuclear fuel rods -- a process that could yield several more bombs within months.
Yesterday's comments marked an intensification of the North's often bellicose rhetoric in its standoff with Washington.
For days, North Korea has claimed that the United States and its allies were laying "international siege" to the isolated country, as a prelude for invasion. The US says it has no plans to invade North Korea, but has not ruled out the military option.
Britain on Wednesday expressed strong support for the US call for international cooperation in dealing with the North.
"We do need internationally to work together to isolate North Korea and to demonstrate that we will not tolerate the way in which they both develop and proliferate weapons of mass destruction," said Britain's Defense Minister Geoffrey Hoon on a visit to Australia.
The nuclear dispute flared in October when US officials said North Korea admitted it had a clandestine nuclear program in violation of a 1994 agreement with Washington.
The US and its allies suspended fuel shipments promised under the 1994 deal, and Pyongyang retaliated by expelling UN monitors, restarting frozen facilities capable of making nuclear bombs and withdrawing from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.