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N. Korea cuts tie to U.S. military

S. Korea denounces neighbor's claim that America may attack

PANMUNJOM, Korea — Accusing the United States of planning an invasion, North Korea on Wednesday cut off the only regular military contact with the U.S.-led command that monitors the Korean War armistice.

The move will further isolate the communist North amid tensions over its suspected nuclear weapons programs.

South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun on Wednesday dismissed as "groundless" allegations by the North that American forces may attack.

"There will be no war on the Korean Peninsula as long as we do not want a war," Roh was quoted as saying by his office, adding that Washington has repeatedly pledged to resolve the crisis peacefully.

Meanwhile, U.N. envoy Maurice Strong said that North Korean officials told him in meetings in Pyongyang last week that they "reserved the right" to reprocess their spent fuel rods that experts say could yield enough plutonium for several atomic bombs within months. Such a move would spike tension even further.

North's Korea People's Army sent a telephone message to the U.S.-led U.N. Command saying it will no longer send its delegates to the liaison-officers' meeting at the inter-Korean border village of Panmunjom.

"It is meaningless to sit together with the U.S. forces side to discuss any issue as long as it remains arrogant," the North's official news agency KCNA quoted the North Korean message as saying.

North Korea claimed again Tuesday the United States may attack the communist state after the war in Iraq and spark a "second Iraqi crisis." It pledged to beef up its defenses.

The U.N. Command, which has monitored the armistice since the end of the 1950-53 war, had no immediate comment. Without a peace treaty, the Korean Peninsula is still technically at a state of war.

U.S. officials representing the U.N. Command have met North Korean officers at Panmunjom almost weekly since the end of the war.

In Japan, space agency officials were preparing to launch their first spy satellites into orbit on Friday. North Korea has condemned the move, prompting fears it may retaliate and test-fire a long-range missile.

Meanwhile in the North's capital, Pyongyang, lawmakers convened the rubber-stamp parliament.

North Korean Finance Minister Mun Il bong said that the 2003 budget will increase 14.4 percent from last year, according to KCNA.

The North Korean government will allocate 15.4 percent of the budget for national defense, up from 14.9 percent last year, Mun said.

"This year . . . the state will give top priority to the production of quality raw and other materials needed for increasing the combat power of the people's army and the national defense industry so as to boost the capability of the revolutionary armed forces in every way," he said.

North Korea accuses Washington of inciting a dispute over its alleged programs to develop nuclear weapons to create an excuse for invasion. President Bush has branded the North part of an "axis of evil" with Iraq and Iran.

Washington says it seeks a diplomatic solution to the crisis — but Bush has said that if diplomacy fails a military solution may be considered.

South Korean Foreign Minister Yoon Young-kwan left Wednesday for Washington to discuss North Korea with Secretary of State Colin Powell and other U.S. officials.

During his four-day visit, Yoon also hopes to arrange a summit in the United States between presidents Roh and Bush, which he said would take place in late April at the earliest.

With the United States focused on Iraq, experts fear North Korea might use the opportunity to reprocess spent nuclear fuel to make atomic bombs.

The standoff flared in October when U.S. officials said Pyongyang admitted having a secret nuclear program in violation of a 1994 pact.

Washington and its allies suspended oil shipments, promised under that agreement, and Pyongyang retaliated by withdrawing from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and taking steps to reactivate a nuclear facility capable of producing several bombs within months.