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South Korean President Vows Swift End to North Korean Nuclear Crisis - 2003-03-01

At the end of his first week in office, South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun vows a swift end to the North Korean nuclear crisis. His speech comes as thousands rally in Seoul for a tough stance against the communist North.

Saturday's somewhat rare anti-North Korea and pro-U.S. rally in the South Korean capital comes three months after much larger crowds staged angry protests against the United States in a groundswell that helped the dovish Mr. Roh win a close presidential election.

The South Korean leader says North Korea's nuclear issue is an immediate task for his administration, though he stressed he wants to see a peaceful resolution to the standoff. He says keeping South Koreans safe is the top priority of his government, which took office on Tuesday. That same day North Korea test-fired a Chinese-designed (Silkworm) surface-to-surface missile into the sea separating the Korean peninsula and Japan.

Meanwhile, North Korea says the United States conducted more than 180 spy plane flights into its airspace last month and says Washington is "trying to start a war."

Mr. Roh's speech Saturday marks a South Korean holiday commemorating an early 20th century independence movement that resisted Japanese occupation of the Korean Peninsula. A North Korean delegation of mostly religious figures arrived in the South the same day to take part in three days of festivities surrounding the holiday.

At Saturday's protest in front of Seoul's city hall, 30,000 demonstrators unfurled huge flags of South Korea, the United States and the United Nations, the U.S.-led alliance responsible for the South's security since the 1953 Korean War armistice. The demonstrators, including Korean War veterans, gathered to denounce North Korea's suspected nuclear weapons program and oppose any U.S. military withdrawal from the Korean peninsula.

The North's accusation of U.S. spy plane incursions into its air space is one it makes frequently, but allegations of spy flights are becoming more frequent as the crisis deepens over North Korea's nuclear ambitions.

Tensions have been building for months. Pyongyang removed U.N. nuclear monitoring equipment from the Stalinist state's atomic facilities and pulled out of a treaty to curb nuclear weapons. The International Atomic Energy Agency has referred the matter to the U.N. Security Council.

A major Japanese daily, The Yomiuri newspaper, reported this week that Japan is worried that North Korea might test-launch a ballistic missile. It quoted an official saying recent events are part of a strategy of intimidation on the part of Pyongyang.

The new South Korean administration, as well as China and Russia, have urged the United States to talk directly to North Korea - a strategy Washington has resisted in favor of multilateral diplomatic pressure on Pyongyang.

Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov offered a rare criticism of old ally North Korea Friday, telling reporters in Beijing, "We think threatening methods are not a solution to the problem."