An act of war’

SEOUL, South Korea – North Korea stoked regional tensions Wednesday, threatening more nuclear tests and saying additional sanctions imposed on it would be considered an act of war, as nervous neighbors raced to bolster defenses and punish Pyongyang.

South Korea said it was making sure its troops were prepared for atomic warfare, and Japan imposed new economic sanctions to hit the economic lifeline of the communist nation’s 1 million-member military, the world’s fifth-largest.

North Korea, in its first formal statement since Monday’s claimed atomic bomb test, hailed the blast as a success and said attempts by the outside world to penalize North Korea with sanctions would be considered an act of war.

Further pressure will be countered with physical retaliation, the North’s Foreign Ministry warned in a statement carried by the official Korean Central News Agency.

“If the U.S. keeps pestering us and increases pressure, we will regard it as a declaration of war and will take a series of physical corresponding measures,” the statement, said without specifying what those measures could be.

President Bush called for stiff sanctions on North Korea and asserted that the United States has “no intentions of attacking” the reclusive regime.

He said he remains committed to diplomacy, but also “reserves all options to defend our friends in the region.”

As Bush spoke, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan urged Washington to hold one-on-one talks with Pyongyang, something the U.S. has refused to do.

“I have always argued that we should talk to parties whose behavior we want to change, whose behavior we want to influence, and from that point of view I believe that … (the) U.S. and North Korea should talk,” Annan said.

Annan also called on the communist nation not to escalate an “extremely difficult” situation.

North Korea’s No. 2 leader Kim Yong Nam threatened in an interview with a Japanese news agency that there also would be more nuclear tests if Washington continued what he called its “hostile attitude.”

Kim, second to North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, told Kyodo News agency that further nuclear testing would hinge on U.S. policy toward his communist government.

“The issue of future nuclear tests is linked to U.S. policy toward our country,” Kim Yong Nam was quoted as saying when asked whether Pyongyang will conduct more tests.

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