(CNSNews.com) - Rattled by a U.S. diplomat's description of North Korea as a "criminal regime," the South Korean government has warned against the use of provocative language.
Pyongyang and Washington are locked in a row over U.S. financial sanctions, imposed recently because of illicit activity including weapons proliferation, drug trading and the counterfeiting of U.S. banknotes.
North Korea has demanded that the sanctions be lifted, indicating that it will not otherwise return to talks with the U.S. and four other nations - South Korea, Japan, China and Russia -- that are seeking to negotiate an end to a three-year standoff over nuclear weapons.
The six countries have held a number of rounds of inconclusive talks in Beijing, most recently last month, although no date has yet been set for the next meeting.
The State Department argues that the sanctions and the six-party nuclear talks are two unrelated issues, and Alexander Vershbow, the new U.S. ambassador to South Korea, reiterated during a media gathering in Seoul Wednesday that Washington would not lift the sanctions simply to please Pyongyang.
"This is a criminal regime and you can't somehow remove sanctions as a political gesture when this regime is engaging in dangerous activities such as weapons exports to rogue states, narcotics trafficking as a state activity and counterfeiting of our money on a large scale," Vershbow said.
He compared the North Korean government' involvement in forging currency to that of the Nazis.
North Korea was using the sanctions to create an "artificial obstacle" to progress in the talks, he said.
South Korean media observed that the remarks were unusually frank, with some reports calling them "scathing" and "hard-line."
The Korea Times headlined its report "U.S. Envoy Embarrasses S. Korean Government" and said in an editorial, "[President] Bush and other U.S. officials need to stop provoking the North."
Asked about the ambassador's comment, Seoul's foreign minister, Ban Ki-moon, said the countries involved in the nuclear talks "need to exercise restraint in the words they choose to describe each other."
Another senior official, South Korea's deputy envoy to the nuclear talks Cho Tae-yong, said it was "not desirable to make such comments provoking a dialogue partner at a time when the six-way talks are at critical juncture," the Yonhap news agency reported.
Seoul hopes the Beijing talks will resume in January, and it has also urged the U.S. and North Korea to resolve the sanctions issue in bilateral talks.
North Korea is notoriously touchy about American criticism, bristling when President Bush said in 2002 it belonged to an "axis of evil," and when Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called it an "outpost of tyranny."
When U.S. diplomat John Bolton, now envoy to the U.N., said in 2003 that life in North Korea was a "hellish nightmare" for most people, Pyongyang described him as "human scum."
It has in the past used such rows to justify delaying a return to the nuclear negotiations.
Its response to Vershbow's widely reported statements is expected soon.
In a commentary published before the America's envoy comments were made, the North's Rodong Sinmun newspaper said for the talks to proceed smoothly "it is necessary for the participating countries to be discreet in their words and deeds in the direction of respecting each other and promoting the relations of confidence."
Adding to the likelihood that the dispute will escalate and result in further delays in the nuclear talks is the fact that an important forum on North Korean human rights abuses -- another very sensitive issue for Pyongyang -- is being held in Seoul over the next three days.
Participants include officials from human rights organizations in the U.S., Europe and Asia, as well as some foreign government representatives, including Vershbow himself.
The South Korean government declined invitations to take part in the event (see related story).
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