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Crisis over missile creates new push for diplomacy


SEOUL, South Korea -- U.S. and Asian officials are trying to use the atmosphere of crisis generated by North Korea's missile tests as the impetus for a fresh diplomatic push on its weapons, according to participants in meetings here over the weekend.

The push came as North Korea adopted an increasingly defiant tone, saying that U.N. sanctions would be tantamount to war.

In a rare statement attributed directly to North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, his nation's radio yesterday broadcast an editorial saying that Kim had announced a "heroic position" in which he "promised to answer to an enemy's retaliation with retaliation and to an all-out war with an all-out war."

In an emergency sweep through the region after the missile launches, Assistant Secretary of State Christopher R. Hill said he was hoping to reconvene six-nation talks on de-nuclearization that have been stalled since last September.

If North Korea boycotts a formal meeting, Hill said, the six countries might meet informally or there might be a meeting of the five - the United States, China, Japan, Russia and South Korea - without North Korea's participation.

"Six is better than five. Five is better than none," Hill said in an interview yesterday with a small group of Western reporters.

"If [the North Koreans] want to negotiate, we are prepared to do so within the six-party process," Hill told reporters. "If they are not interested, we will do our best to defend ourselves and secondly to keep them very isolated."

Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns blitzed television talk shows yesterday morning, urging China to step up pressure on North Korea to return to the stalled talks. If Kim remains defiant, Burns warned, the United States and its allies might push for the United Nations to impose harsh sanctions as early as this week.

"We hope that China is going to bring some pressure and influence to bear to convince the North Koreans that they are entirely isolated in the world," Burns said on CBS' Face the Nation. "The North Koreans have to come back to the six-party talks."

The fresh diplomatic push appears to be principally an effort by China and South Korea, along with the United States, to prevent the missile launches from escalating into a larger confrontation. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called senior Chinese officials Saturday, and Chinese leaders hurriedly sent a delegation to Pyongyang over the weekend for talks.

Both China and South Korea are hesitant to go along with a Japanese-led effort before the United Nations to get sanctions enacted against North Korea.

South Korea intends to hold Cabinet-level meetings with North Korea beginning tomorrow in Pusan and will push for the renewed talks.

"We have to turn the dynamic created by the [missile tests] into a force for diplomacy," said South Korea's top nuclear negotiator, Chun Young-woo, after a meeting with Hill on Saturday.

At the last meeting of the six-party talks, in September, North Korea agreed in principle to dismantle its nuclear weapons - then reneged on the deal the following day. The talks have been stalled since.

A North Korean diplomat in New York, Han Sung Ryol, said in an interview published in Seoul on Saturday that North Korea will not return to talks until the United States releases $24 million held in a small bank in the Chinese enclave of Macao that is being audited by the Treasury Department for its role in illicit activities.

Hill rejected those demands.

"This is not a time to talk about what concession we should be making," he said.

Hill will be meeting in Tokyo today with Japanese officials who are leading the drive for tougher economic measures against North Korea.

Barbara Demick writes for the Los Angeles Times. Times staff writers T. Christian Miller and Jim Puzzanghera in Washington contributed to this article.

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