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UN Says N. Korea Pullout of Military Talks 'Unfortunate'

The U.S.-led United Nations Command has expressed regret that North Korea has pulled out of regular military talks. Pyongyang withdrew from the discussions to underscore its opposition to military drills being held by the United States and South Korea.

The United Nations Command, which monitors the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea, confirmed Thursday that the North Korean military had decided to cut off contact. The talks are one of the North's few regular conduits with the outside world.

"North Korea's decision to back away from talks at this time is unfortunate," says Lieutenant Colonel Mike Caldwell, a spokesman for the U.S. military in South Korea, which runs the U.N. Command. "During the General Officer talks on August 6, 2002, both sides agreed that face-to-face talks was the best way to reduce tensions and prevent misunderstanding."

Pyongyang's move is a protest against the annual war games now underway in South Korea. The South and the United States say the drills are defensive. But the North describes them as practice for a pre-emptive strike on its nuclear facilities, and has repeatedly accused the United States of plotting to invade it. The United States denies the accusation, but tensions on the Korean Peninsula show no signs of easing.

Concerns rose in October when U.S. officials said North Korea admitted to having an illegal nuclear weapons program, a charge Pyongyang denies. It has since withdrawn from a global non-proliferation treaty and restarted banned nuclear facilities.

Despite these acts, a senior South Korean official said Thursday there is little chance a war will break out on the Korean Peninsula. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said there is no sign that North Korea had restarted a reprocessing plant that could make material for nuclear weapons.

South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun also has tried to calm worries, saying he would continue to seek a peaceful resolution to the dispute, and that the United States agreed with his approach. However, the United States rejects North Korea's demand for one-on-one talks, and insists South Korea, Japan and other countries should take part.

Japan's defense minister, Shigeru Ishiba, goes to South Korea Friday to discuss the North's nuclear programs. His visit coincides with Tokyo's launch of its first spy satellites. North Korea condemns the launch, saying it will nullify an agreement the two countries signed last year to improve regional security.

Some Japanese officials worry the Stalinist state may respond to the launch by test-firing a long-range missile. Tokyo has released few details about the satellites and their capabilities because of heightened security concerns.