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North Korea threatens to attack U.S. warships

North Korea threatened yesterday to attack U.S. warships cruising near its coasts in an escalation of tensions after threats by the major powers to slap tougher sanctions on Pyongyang for testing nuclear weapons.

The neo-Stalinist regime also issued an official declaration claiming it was ripping up the 1953 armistice agreement that ended the Korean War.

"We're certainly concerned and take any threat seriously," President Barack Obama's spokesman Robert Gibbs said. But he suggested the unpredictable regime led by the ailing and reclusive Kim Jong-il was "trying to get renewed attention through sabre-rattling and bluster and threats."

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At the United Nations in New York, the Security Council grappled with North Korea's open defiance and diplomats from the major powers gathered to hammer out a new round of sanctions to impose on Pyongyang.

"We are going to add to the consequences that North Korea will face," U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in Washington.

North Korea fired off a new salvo of threats yesterday after South Korea announced its warships would join a U.S.-led naval effort to shadow and - if necessary - seize freighters suspected of carrying weapons of mass destruction.

Seoul's government announced it was joining the 95-nation Proliferation Security Initiative (which includes Canada) aimed at interdicting nuclear, chemical and biological weapons shipments.

South Korea's decision "dragged the Korean peninsula into the state of war," said an official military statement circulated by North Korea's state-controlled news agency.

"Any hostile act against our peaceful vessels including search and seizure will be considered an unpardonable infringement on our sovereignty and we will immediately respond with a powerful military strike," it added.

Even as it said it was taking the threats seriously and vowed to defend its allies - South Korea and Japan - from North Korean attack, the Obama administration suggested Pyongyang was indulging itself in attention-getting.

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"Threats won't get North Korea the attention it craves," Mr. Gibbs said, adding, "This is the fifth time in 15 years that they've sought to nullify the armistice."

The ceasefire that ended the three-year war was never followed by a peace treaty and the heavily fortified zone dividing the two Koreas remains tense.

North Korea's blunt rejection of Mr. Obama's offer to open talks has created the first simmering foreign policy crisis for the new President.

Although Pyongyang often resorts to bellicose rhetoric, it has also backed up its threats on occasion. Twice in the past 10 years, it has sent warships to ambush South Korean vessels. The last naval skirmish left two vessels severely damaged and more than 40 sailors killed or injured.

Although U.S. warships routinely operate in international waters off the Korean Peninsula and the Pentagon has ordered specially equipped surveillance aircraft into the region to attempt to capture traces of fallout from the North Korean nuclear test, the Pentagon said there had been no buildup of forces or increase in the state of alert for the U.S. military in the area.

Washington wants North Korea to return to what were dubbed the "six-party" talks, which include China, Japan, Russia and South Korea. Pyongyang, which some analysts believe is in the throes of a succession crisis that could establish one of Kim Jong-il sons as the third-generation of the family to run the impoverished totalitarian state, has long demanded bilateral talks with Washington.

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North Korea has repeatedly made and broken non-proliferation pacts and pledged to dismantle its nuclear weapons program in return for massive aid and donated nuclear reactors. However the latest test - three years after an initial, only partially-successful nuclear detonation - has established North Korea as an undisputed nuclear-weapons state. Last month, it test fired a multistage ballistic missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead thousands of kilometres.

Most military analysts, however, believe it has not yet managed to make a nuclear warhead small enough and light enough to sit atop a missile.

Still, the efforts of three successive U.S. presidents to keep North Korea out of the nuclear weapons club have failed.

Meanwhile, unconfirmed South Korean media reports say North Korea had restarted its nuclear fuel reprocessing plant at Yongbyon, which was supposed to be permanently shut down and dismantled.

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International Affairs and Security Correspondent

Paul More

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