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N. Korea's defense minister warns of 'nuclear catastrophe' in letter to Gates: official
SEOUL, Feb. 21 (Yonhap) -- North Korea's defense minister warned of a "nuclear catastrophe" in a letter sent to U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates last month and demanded direct talks with Washington, a senior South Korean official was quoted as saying Monday.

   Kim Yong-chun, the minister of the North's People's Armed Forces, stressed in the letter that the North and the U.S. should meet bilaterally because the nuclear standoff boils down to an issue between the two sides, the Seoul official said during a briefing at an annual conference of South Korean diplomatic mission chiefs, according to multiple participants.

   Kim said in the letter that unless something is done about the deadlock in the North Korean nuclear issue, a "nuclear catastrophe will break out on the Korean Peninsula," the senior briefer was quoted as saying at the diplomats' conference that opened in Seoul for a five-day run.

   The letter shows the North Korean situation is heading toward a "climax," the official was quoted as saying.

   "After all, the next step will be either one of two things, whether it will come to dialogue or stage provocations, and I think North Korea is standing at such a crossroads," the briefer said at the conference, according to the participants.

   Additional North Korean provocations could be attacks such as the March sinking of the South's warship Cheonan and the November shelling of the South's border island of Yeonpyeong, missile or nuclear tests, or acts of terrorism, the briefer predicted.

   "North Korea's military is thinking of striking a big deal with the United States by bypassing South Korea while sticking to its position that it won't apologize for the Cheonan and the Yeonpyeong incidents," he said.

   Pyongyang's emphasis on the past summit agreements with the South means that it is trying to win concessions from Seoul and security assurances from Washington while continuing to hold on to nuclear weapons without giving them up, the official told the conference.

   The official also said the North's military appears to be the main player in its dealing with the U.S. after it started getting involved in Pyongyang's decision-making process since the North's leader, Kim Jong-il, suffered a reported stroke in 2008.

   "As Minister Kim Yong-chun proposed the North-U.S. military talks, the North's military is engaged in a high level of diplomacy," he said, adding that the North's military believes the country's foreign ministry is unreliable.

   The North's military has greater say in the country's decision-making than the foreign ministry and has been handling external affairs as well recently, the official said, adding that Seoul has evidence that the North's military had its hands on "a few important decisions" on inter-Korean relations.

   On the health of the North's leader, the official was quoted as saying that Kim Jong-il is in "so-so" condition without his health conditions sharply deteriorating or improving, and the South plans to keep an eye on the matter in the future.

   His first son, Kim Jong-nam, who has been living overseas for years, has been keeping in touch with his father, sometimes sending his wife to Pyongyang, the official said.

   "It appears he feels any threat to his security," the official was quoted as saying.

   The eldest son fell out of favor in the race to become a successor to the family dynasty after he was caught trying to enter Japan on a fake passport to visit Tokyo's Disneyland. His half-brother, Kim Jong-un, has apparently been named the next leader of the communist nation.

   There have been rumors that the heir apparent could attempt to hurt Kim's eldest son.

   jschang@yna.co.kr
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