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Former President Jimmy Carter crossed the heavily armed border with North Korea Wednesday, beginning a four-day effort to defuse nuclear tensions on the divided peninsula.

In Seoul, meanwhile, sirens wailed and traffic came to a halt as authorities staged a civil-defense drill in the city center. In order to avoid fanning public fears, the drill was scaled far back from original plans.Carter, accompanied by his wife, Rosalynn, traveled through the truce village of Panmunjom inside the demilitarized zone that separates the two Koreas roughly along the 38th parallel. He did not speak to reporters but waved back at them from the northern side.

The former president's trip, although private, was endorsed by the Clinton administration and is seen as part of a U.S. effort to convince the hard-line Communist North it is on a collision course over its nuclear program.

Speaking to reporters in Washington at the start of a meeting with Republican and Democratic congressional leaders, President Clinton said he hoped Carter's mission to North Korea would bring the situation into clearer focus.

"I think he (Carter) will reaffirm our position . . . (and) get a better sense from them about where they are," Clinton said.

Clinton said U.N. Ambassador Madeleine Albright was consulting with other members of the Security Council on phased sanctions if Pyongyang continues to bar nuclear inspections and "we're going to be very deliberate, very firm."At the same time, Clinton said North Korea still had time to pursue an alternative path. "They don't have to become more isolated. They could become more engaged in ways that would be much better for their own people," he said.

The Pyongyang government insists its nuclear research is peaceful, but its refusal to permit full U.N. inspections in the past 15 months has aroused suspicions it is trying to build nuclear weapons.

North Korea expressed renewed defiance Wednesday morning. In a speech carried by Radio Pyongyang monitored in Tokyo, Defense Minister O Jin U said his country would never again accept inspections because of the "arrogant and insolent" attitude of the International Atomic Energy Agency, the U.N.'s nuclear watchdog.

Heightening tensions, the North this week announced its withdrawal from the IAEA. The United States, Korea and Japan are pushing for U.N. sanctions, which the North said it would regard as an act of war.

In North Korea, Carter planned to meet with President Kim Il Sung. The former president met with President Kim Young-sam and other top government officials while in Seoul.

At a reception for Carter on Wednesday, North Korean Foreign Minister Kim Yong Nam said he hoped Carter's visit would help reduce the hostility between the two countries and bring about mutual respect.

"If the United States respects the sovereignty of our country and treats it as an equal partner . . . the pending issues between (North Korea) and the United States, including the nuclear issue, will be solved satisfactorily," he said.

Carter told Kim the United States was ready for closer ties and trade with North Korea.

"I believe that as soon as the nuclear issue is resolved clearly and the misunderstandings are removed we can make progress for the other goals," Carter was quoted as saying.

The United States has no official ties with North Korea, which is believed to be anxious to improve relations with Washington.

"It is better for the U.S. to return to the conference table with us and resolve this in a peaceful manner," North Korea's U.N. mission chief, Pak Gil Yon, told reporters in New York on Tuesday.

In recent days, South Korea has taken steps to improve war readiness, including ordering a check of underground shelters and emergency water supplies. Its military is on high alert and police are on special guard against saboteurs and infiltrators.

But authorities are also actively seeking to calm public unease. "There is no reason to talk or worry about a war," Foreign Minister Han Sung-joo said Tuesday.

South Koreans have generally been calm throughout the nuclear crisis, but there were signs of new unease.

The nationwide civil defense exercise was cut back dramatically in Seoul. The exercise was to have mobilized 6,700 reservists, six helicopters, 10 armored vehicles and about a dozen fire trucks, officials said. But the actual exercise used only 2,600 police and firefighters, and no helicopters or armed vehicles.