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North Korea Warns It Could Retaliate Against US - 2003-03-16

North Korea has warned that it could retaliate against the United States, which has increased its military presence in the region as it holds military exercises with South Korea.

North Korea's official Rodong Sinmun newspaper says Pyongyang would be forced to defend itself against any aggressive moves by U.S. forces. It warned that North Korea "cannot remain a passive onlooker" to what it called intensified U.S. military moves.

As in years past, the North has angrily protested annual military maneuvers being held by the United States and South Korea.

The United States has 37,000 troops stationed in South Korea under a mutual defense agreement. They are taking part in the war games, along with five-thousand additional U.S. troops and tens-of-thousands of South Korean soldiers.

Tensions have been rising since last October, when the United States accused the communist North Korea of running a covert nuclear program in violation of several international pacts. Pyongyang denies the allegation.

In the face of the escalating dispute over North Korea's nuclear ambitions, Washington has mustered a larger show of force for the military exercises this year. An aircraft carrier and six stealth fighter jets are taking part. Washington has increased its fire power around the Korean Peninsula amid concerns that Pyongyang might try to take advantage of a possible U.S. led war with Iraq to further provoke the United States. The United States recently deployed two dozen long-range bombers to the Pacific island of Guam and has placed a missile-tracking warship 40 kilometers west of Seoul.

For months, North Korea has engaged in a series of provocative acts, such as withdrawing from the global nuclear arms control treaty and testing short-range missiles. The United States and its allies stopped fuel-aid shipments to North Korea in December, but Washington recently said it would resume food aid to the impoverished state.

Since the dispute began, North Korea has continually lashed out at the United States, accusing it of planning to attack. Washington has repeatedly denied that it has plans to attack the North.

Pyongyang demands direct talks with Washington to defuse the crisis. The United States also wants talks with the North, but it wants South Korea, Japan, and other countries to take part.