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Report: N. Korea May Insist on US Troop Withdrawal from South - 2004-03-08

North Korea said Monday it may insist on the withdrawal of U.S. troops from South Korea unless Washington drops its demand that Pyongyang dismantle its nuclear weapons program.

In a report issued Monday by North Korea's Central News Agency, the isolated Communist state said it could soon slap new counter-demands on the United States.

The dispatch said Pyongyang may insist that U.S. troops leave South Korea as a precondition for resolving the ongoing standoff over the North's nuclear weapons program.

Washington bases 37,000 troops in South Korea to help protect it in case the North attacks. U.S. troops have remained in South Korea since the Korean War in the early 1950's.

Pyongyang also said Monday it might ask for a "verifiable and irreversible" security guarantee from the United States, echoing Washington's frequent demand that North Korea completely, verifiably and irreversibly dismantle its nuclear weapons program.

North Korea's latest comments come nine days after a second round of six-party talks aimed at ending the North Korean nuclear crisis ended in Beijing without a resolution.

The United States, Japan, Russia, China and the two Korea's took part in that meeting as well as the first round, which ended inconclusively last August.

At the most recent meeting, all parties agreed to meet for a third time before July, and also decided to set up a lower level working group to help the negotiation process move forward.

North Korea has said it will halt its nuclear program in exchange for economic aid and a security guarantee, but Bush administration officials have said repeatedly that the North must permanently abandon its nuclear ambitions before it will negotiate on other issues.

North Korea has frequently demanded that Washington remove its troops from the Korean Peninsula, but it has never before linked this issue with the nuclear dispute.

The crisis started in October of 2002, when U.S. officials said North Korea admitted it was secretly running a nuclear weapons program, in violation of international accords.