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Powell Says North Korea Is Most Serious Weapons Worry

The statement led to yet another threat from the communist nation to shore up its nuclear program despite international pressure.

“With respect to weapons of mass destruction … no issue is of greater urgency to the U.S. than North Korea’s nuclear weapons programs,” Powell said before a meeting of the 10-nation Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and officials from China, Russia, South Korea and Japan.

Since last year, when President Bush grouped North Korea, along with Iraq and Iran, into what he called “the axis of evil,” North Korea has admitted to building a nuclear weapons program, expelled U.N. weapons inspectors and withdrawn from the nuclear nonproliferation treaty. The country has also threatened to use the weapons to defend itself against a possible U.S. attack.

Powell urged North Korea to participate in multilateral negotiations and encouraged countries in the region to become involved in the talks, citing the gravity of the threat. China, South Korea and Japan all lie within range of North Korea’s missiles.

“This is not a bilateral matter between the United States and North Korea,” Powell said. “It affects every nation in the region that would fall under the arc of a North Korean missile.”

North Korean officials have demanded bilateral talks with the United States, rejecting multilateral talks as a ploy to isolate their country.

North Korea boycotted the ASEAN meeting and responded that pressure and dialogue “can never go together.”

“It is becoming clear that the U.S. loudmouthed multilateral talks are not aimed to settle the nuclear issue peacefully but to cover up its moves to isolate and stifle the DPRK,” Pyongyang’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement released by the country’s state-run news agency. DPRK is the acronym for North Korea’s official name, Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

“We will step up the strengthening of our nuclear deterrent force as a justified self defense,” the statement said.

Powell denied accusations from North Korea that the U.S. is intent on attacking the country.

“North Korea hides behind the false claim that the United States is threatening to attack it,” he said. “Not only are we not threatening North Korea, we will not allow it to threaten us or our friends and allies in the region by its provocations.”

U.S. officials fear that North Korea could incite a weapons race between Asian countries by selling information and nuclear know-how.

Earlier this month, the U.S agreed to pull back some 14,000 U.S. troops stationed in the Demilitarized Zone between the North and South Korean borders. U.S. military officials said the move would provide a more flexible, less intrusive military presence in South Korea, enhancing the United States’ ability to defend its longtime ally.

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