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U.S. pushing N-crisis, North Korea says

SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea cannot remain "a passive onlooker" while the United States conducts military exercises in the region, the North said Sunday, saying Washington is pushing a nuclear crisis toward a second Korean War.

While vowing to counter any military attacks, Pyongyang also said Sunday it wants to avoid war and reiterated its demand for direct talks with Washington.

"The DPRK cannot remain a passive onlooker to the U.S. intensified military moves as they are a dangerous military racket to ignite the second Korean War," North Korea's official Rodong Sinmun said Sunday. DPRK stands for Democratic People's Republic of Korea, North Korea's official name.

The U.S. military said the annual Foal Eagle exercises, which end April 2, are defensive and not related to the political situation on the Korean Peninsula.

North Korea blames the war games for heightened tensions on the divided Korean Peninsula. A dispute over North Korea's nuclear programs has been spiraling since October, when the United States said Pyongyang had admitted having a secret nuclear weapons program in violation of a 1994 agreement.

The United States has gathered an impressive show of force for the games, including the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson and six U.S. F-117 Nighthawk stealth fighters, here for the first time in a decade.

In a separate commentary reported by South Korea's Yonhap news agency, Rodong said: "We do not want the standoff to lead to war and demand to resolve the issue through North Korea-U.S. direct talks."

The United States wants a multilateral approach that includes many countries. Vice President Dick Cheney, appearing on NBC's "Meet the Press," said he would travel to the region next month and stressed the importance of North Korea's neighbors dealing with the crisis.

"They're far more directly affected than we are — Japan, South Korea and especially China. The idea of a nuclear-armed North Korea with ballistic missiles to deliver those will, I think, probably set off an arms race in that part of the world. And others, perhaps Japan, for example, may be forced to consider whether or not they want to readdress the nuclear question. That's not in China's interest."

He dismissed the notion that the United States should handle North Korea and Iraq the same way. "Each set of circumstances we are faced with around the world is different," Cheney said. "It does not automatically mean an approach that makes sense in Iraq is necessarily an approach that would make sense in North Korea."

Despite the standoff, Washington promised to send 40,000 tons of food immediately to impoverished North Korea as part of its commitment to 100,000 deliver tons of food this year, a U.N. envoy said Sunday in Beijing.

The announcement by Maurice Strong, a Canadian aide to U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan, came after warnings by aid agencies that donations have dropped sharply, jeopardizing programs that feed millions of North Koreans.

Strong, who plans to visit Pyongyang Tuesday to help mediate the standoff, said he had information for North Korea after meeting U.S. officials in Washington last week. He did not give any details.

Rodong said Sunday that U.S. military moves against the nation were in full swing.

"The crisis issue between the DPRK and the U.S. over the nuclear issue is being driven into a tight corner," the paper said, in a commentary carried by the North's KCNA news agency. DPRK stands for Democratic People's Republic of Korea, North Korea's official name.

In recent weeks, North Korea test-fired two short-range, anti-ship missiles off the country's east coast and communist fighter jets briefly intercepted an American reconnaissance plane over international waters.

The Korean nuclear crisis flared in October, when U.S. officials said North Korea admitted having a uranium-enriching program. Washington and its allies suspended fuel shipments; Pyongyang retaliated by expelling U.N. monitors, withdrawing from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and restarting a nuclear reactor.