North Korea is warning that U.S.-led training exercises aimed at combating the suspected trade of weapons of mass destruction are "reckless military provocations" that could lead to nuclear war. The exercises, taking place in the Coral Sea off the northeastern coast of Australia, involve American, French, Japanese and Australian forces. It is part of a multi-national effort to stop so-called rogue states, including North Korea, from exporting weapons to terrorists. "Operation Pacific Protector" is the first in a series of air, ground and sea exercises planned by the 11-nation Proliferation Security Initiative. The group was set up earlier this year by U.S. President George W. Bush to counter the suspected trade in chemical, biological and nuclear weapons.
The two-day operation began Saturday with military and police personnel from the United States, France, Japan and Australia boarding and searching a Japanese ship posing as a suspect vessel.
Members of the Proliferation Security Initiative insist the organization is not targeting specific countries, although observers say Iran, Libya and North Korea are clearly within its sights.
However, the government in Pyongyang believes North Korea is a target. In its official Communist party newspaper, officials are describing the maritime maneuvers as high-handed provocation that is part of a hostile policy the United States is pursuing towards North Korea. It warned the exercises could result in nuclear conflict.
Washington denies that the exercises are hostile. The U.S. ambassador to Australia, Tom Scheiffer, says the United States is committed to a peaceful outcome to the nuclear tensions on the Korean peninsula.
"There is a diplomatic solution to the situation in North Korea and it may not come quickly and it may not come easily but as long as it comes we'll … be all right," said Mr. Scheiffer.
The United States and other nations suspect the secretive regime in Pyongyang of exporting banned weapons, as well as illegal drugs and counterfeit currency.
Last month, Taiwan intercepted a North Korean vessel carrying what the United States has called a chemical weapons precursor. Earlier this year, Australian commandos boarded a North Korean ship after a high seas chase. The crew, including a member of the official workers party, was arrested and charged with trafficking heroin.
The United States and other countries say Pyongyang's nuclear program threatens stability throughout Asia.