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N. KOREAN MOVE ESCALATES CRISIS

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The United States, South Korea and Japan - the prime backers of sanctions against North Korea over its nuclear program - all voiced strong concern Tuesday over the North's announcement it would pull out of the U.N. nuclear watchdog group.

North Korea's plan to quit the International Atomic Energy Agency, announced by its official news agency late Monday, would make it virtually impossible to check whether North Korea is complying with an international nuclear arms-control pact it signed in 1985.President Clinton told Japanese Prime Minister Tsutomu Hata by telephone Tuesday that the North's move, if confirmed, would make the situation much more serious, Japan's foreign ministry said.

The IAEA, based in Vienna, said Tuesday that North Korea had not officially communicated its intention to withdraw from the 120-member organization. Agency spokesman David Kyd said the two IAEA inspectors at the nuclear complex at Yongbyon had not been asked to leave.

Top South Korean security officials met in emergency session for two hours Tuesday to discuss the North's announcement, which heightened tensions on the Korean peninsula. The Koreas' 2 million troops are already on alert.

After the meeting, Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hong-koo said North Korea's move would only strengthen international resolve to seek U.N. sanctions, a process that could take two or three weeks.

The Seoul stock exchange's main index today plunged 2.1 percent, its biggest one-day loss in four months.

South Korean Foreign Minister Han Sung-joo said the prospects for dialogue with the North had diminished.

"We have now run into a critical juncture where decisive and firm measures are necessary," he said.

A Japanese foreign ministry statement said North Korea was going against "the desires of international society" and asked it to reconsider.

South Korea and Japan, much of which is within range of North Korean missiles, have agreed, in concert with the United States, to push for punitive steps against the North, which would gradually increase in severity.

But Japan's foreign ministry said Tuesday that Japan would not act prior to U.N. sanctions.

North Korea repeated Monday that U.N. sanctions would be considered a declaration of war.

Former President Jimmy Carter, in Seoul for talks, plans to visit North Korea for four days starting Wednesday as scheduled.

Carter met Foreign Minister Han Sung-joo over lunch Tuesday and was a guest at a dinner hosted by President Kim Young-sam at the Blue House, the presidential mansion.

"I told him that we would want him very much to let the North Koreans know how seriously the international community regards the problem, and unless North Korea changes its attitude the U.N. Security Council has to take firm measures," Han said.

Carter is to cross into North Korea Wednesday morning through the truce village of Panmunjom, 35 miles north of Seoul. He is to return to South Korea on Saturday.