SEOUL, South Korea (AP) – Standing in neat rows on a snow-covered plaza, tens of thousands of North Koreans rallied yesterday in Pyongyang calling for a stronger military. The communist state said U.S. economic sanctions against it would lead to war.

North Korea’s saber-rattling came hours before the United States, Japan and South Korea agreed to urge Pyongyang to renounce its nuclear weapons programs if it wanted better ties with the rest of the world.

The three allies have stressed a peaceful resolution of the rising tensions – a stance President Bush reiterated yesterday.

“In this case, I believe, working with countries in the region, diplomacy will work,” Bush said, speaking in Chicago on economic policy. “We have no aggressive intentions, no argument with the North Korean people. We’re interested in peace in the Korean Peninsula.”

But North Korea’s rhetoric, broadcast to the world through its official Korean Central News Agency, remained defiant.

“Sanctions mean a war, and the war knows no mercy,” the KCNA, monitored in Seoul, declared yesterday.

In the North Korean capital, more than 100,000 people in dark overcoats and caps attended a state-orchestrated rally and vowed to “exert utmost efforts to increase the national defense capacity,” the KCNA said.

Braving icy cold weather, the demonstrators shook clenched fists against the backdrop of white-and-red communist slogans, according to KCNA photographs carried by South Korea’s Yonhap news agency.

In Washington, the U.S. State Department announced yesterday that the United States is willing to talk to North Korea but will not make concessions to freeze Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program.

Winding up two days of talks with South Korea and Japan, a statement approved by all three governments endorsed dialogue with North Korea as a useful vehicle for resolving serious issues.

To follow up on the trilateral talks that began Monday, South Korea’s national security adviser, Yim Sung-joon, left for Washington on Tuesday to meet his U.S. counterpart, Condoleezza Rice. From Washington, Yim will travel to Tokyo for more talks.

Later this week, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly will travel to Seoul.

On Monday, the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency gave North Korea a second chance to abandon its suspected weapons programs – stopping short of referring the matter to the U.N. Security Council and effectively delaying the possibility of U.N. sanctions.

President Bush reaffirmed that the United States has “no intention of invading North Korea,” but urged North Korea to permit international monitoring of its nuclear facilities.

Welcoming the IAEA decision, South Korea’s Foreign Ministry yesterday urged North Korea not to miss a “precious chance” to resolve the issue “diplomatically and peacefully.”

North Korea’s threat of a possible war was contained in a KCNA dispatch lambasting what it described as “piracy” in the seizure of a North Korean ship carrying missiles to Yemen last month.

U.S. and Spanish warships seized a North Korean ship carrying Scud missiles in the Arabian Sea. They later allowed it to sail after receiving assurances the Scuds would not be transferred elsewhere in the tense Persian Gulf region.

Exporting missiles is a main source of hard currency for North Korea.

The North called the seizure part of a U.S. strategy of “total economic sanctions aimed at isolating and stifling” North Korea.

Separately, South Korea said yesterday that its last portion of the 400,000 tons of aid rice it promised to North Korea last year would leave port Jan. 14.

Extending more aid would require additional talks.

The North alarmed the world in October by admitting to a U.S. envoy that it had a secret uranium-based nuclear weapons program, in violation of a 1994 accord.

As punishment, the United States and its allies halted oil supplies promised in the agreement. North Korea then announced it would reactivate its older plutonium-based nuclear program, saying it needs to restart a reactor to generate electricity.

The United States says the plutonium-based program could be used to build nuclear weapons. Washington has also said North Korea may already have two nuclear weapons and could build several more in short order.

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