Russian official gives warning to N. Korea

Nuclear development would be contrary to Moscow interests, he says


ST. PETERSBURG, Russia - A top Russian diplomat said yesterday that a nuclear North Korea would be against Russia's national interests and that the Kremlin would re-evaluate its opposition to international sanctions should the North Koreans develop nuclear weapons.

The statements by Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Losyukov, who was the Kremlin's emissary to North Korea during a diplomatic mission in January, amounted to a warning to North Korea that patience was ebbing in one of the few nations that has offered it sympathy during a five-month nuclear crisis with the United States.

North Korea has said it would regard international sanctions as an act of war, a position that Russia has endorsed even as it has tried informally to mediate the nuclear dispute.

But in an interview with the Interfax news service, Losyukov said Russia would continue to oppose international sanctions against North Korea's nuclear program only "as long as our North Korean colleagues maintain common sense."

Should North Korea begin producing weapons, he said, "Russia will have to seriously consider its position, as the appearance of nuclear weapons in North Korea and the possibility of using them close to our borders goes categorically against Russia's national interests."

"If the issue in North Korea becomes one of nuclear weapons development or, worse, of the possibility of using them, this would present us with a very serious choice," Losyukov said.

His comments reflected not only growing Russian concern over North Korea's nuclear ambitions, but also perhaps concern that the United States' and Britain's apparent triumph in the war with Iraq might embolden the Bush administration to consider military action against North Korea.

Since the United States confronted the North Koreans last fall with evidence that they were secretly conducting a nuclear-weapons program in defiance of the 1968 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, North Korea has abrogated the treaty and restarted a reactor capable of producing weapons-grade plutonium.

The nation's leaders have insisted that only direct talks with the United States can persuade them to abandon their program, but the Bush administration has argued just as adamantly that the nuclear program is an international problem requiring global pressure and multilateral talks.

The United States has said that it has no plans to attack North Korea and that it believes the standoff can be resolved diplomatically. But it also has taken a number of actions, such as airing a recent proposal to move U.S. troops in South Korea out of range of North Korean artillery, which the North has denounced as preparations for war.

The Bush administration's top arms-proliferation official, Undersecretary of State John Bolton, said this week that nations such as North Korea should take a lesson from the events in Iraq.

Losyukov said Russia fears that a nuclear war on the Korean Peninsula would affect Russian territory and endanger Russian citizens living along the short border it shares with North Korea.

The Russian government, he said, is studying ways to shield towns along the border from the effects of a nuclear battle. "We are obliged to consider preventive means to safeguard our interests, and - why hide this? - to protect our population," he said. "The government has given orders to this effect to the proper authorities."

Russia has tried to maintain friendly relations with North Korea, its ally during the Cold War, even as it has sought to broaden ties with South Korea. In Seoul on Thursday, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said North Korea might well ignore condemnations by the United Nations.

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