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North Korea Boycotts Liason Talks as S. Korea-US War Games Under Way - 2003-03-26

North Korea pulled out of regularly held liaison talks with the U.S.-led United Nations Command that monitors the 1953 armistice ending the Korean War. Pyongyang says the move is a reaction to annual U.S.-South Korean military drills now under way.

North Korea announced Wednesday it will no longer send delegates to the liaison officers' meetings held frequently at the Korean border town of Panmunjom, removing one of the few conduits for communication with the United States.

North Korean and American military officers representing the United Nations Command have gathered there nearly every week to discuss security issues, even though the two countries have no official ties.

The North's state-run media said it is "meaningless for the two sides to sit together to discuss any issue as long as the United States remains arrogant."

Pyongyang has hinted that the cutoff is a protest over the annual month-long U.S.-South Korean war games now taking place in the South. The North has previously complained about the maneuvers, but this year, with the American-led war under way in Iraq and international tensions rising over the North's nuclear ambitions, its reaction has been fierce.

On Wednesday the North said the United States is "pushing the situation on the Korean Peninsula to the brink of war." It has repeatedly accused Washington of plotting to invade the North, an accusation the Bush administration denies.

Pyongyang announced it was cutting off discussions as South Korea's foreign minister left for Washington for talks with U.S. officials on North Korea.

The Korean Peninsula has been a source of international concern since October, when the United States said the North admitted to running an illegal nuclear weapons program. In response, Washington and its allies suspended fuel aid to the impoverished state. Since then, Pyongyang has restarted banned nuclear facilities, tested short-range missiles and withdrawn from the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

The North on Wednesday also said Japan faces "self-destruction" if it launches two spy satellites on Friday. The satellites are likely to be used for surveillance of North Korea, among other things.

There has been speculation that North Korea could respond to the launch with a ballistic missile test, but Tokyo says there is no evidence a test is likely.

Yasuaki Hashimoto, senior fellow at Japan's National Institute for Defense Studies, does not expect a provocative move in the near future, saying it is unlikely that the North will test a ballistic missile unless it feels pushed over the edge and perceives it lacks any other option.

North Korea last tested a ballistic missile in 1998 which flew over Japanese territory and alarmed many nations in the region.

The North's nuclear weapons program remains a regional concern. North Korean officials have told a United Nations special envoy that they will continue to work on restarting a plant that can produce nuclear weapons until Washington agrees to direct talks.

The envoy, Maurice Strong, who is now in Seoul, also reportedly said that the North fears it may be the next U.S. military target after Iraq.

Washington is calling for a diplomatic solution to the North Korea standoff, but says talks should take place within a multilateral forum, involving South Korea, Japan, China and Russia.