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US ratchets up pressure on North Korea over nuclear issue

US Secretary of State John Kerry has assured South Korea of "ironclad" support from the US on a trip to Seoul. He demanded the North restart talks on its nuclear program, calling Pyongyang's recent conduct "horrific."

Speaking during his two-day visit to South Korea, Kerry said the North had "grown the threat of their program" and had "acted with a kind of reckless abandon," showing a "flagrant disregard for international law" by carrying on with its nuclear and missile activity and oppressing its own people.

He also condemned the recent

reported execution of Pyongyang's defense chief

, which had apparently been ordered by leader Kim Jong Un, calling it and reports of other killings "grotesque, grisly, horrendous, public displays of executions on a whim and fancy."

Kerry said if North Korea's "horrific conduct" did not stop, it was likely that it would be

referred to the International Criminal Court (ICC)

. He said North Korea had "not even come close" to taking the steps needed to rein in its nuclear program, but that he hoped that the

progress made with Iran

would send a positive signal to Pyongyang.

He said the US remained open to talks, but only if "we ... have some indication from the leader of North Korea that they are serious about engaging on the subject of their nuclear program."

Talks on Pyongyang's atomic program broke down three years ago, and the North has since conducted several nuclear tests and ballistic missile launches despite being subjected to tough sanctions and growing international pressure.

'Ironclad' US support

South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se said "the severity of recent threats and provocations" made it essential for the US and South Korea to deepen its security and defense efforts. Kerry assured Seoul of America's "ironclad" security commitments.

North Korea conducted its first nuclear test in 2006 and is now believed to have at least 10 atomic weapons. In 2005, Pyongyang rejected a deal with the United States, Russia, South Korea and China to end its nuclear program.

The international community is increasingly worried about Kim's erratic behavior. The execution of his defense chief and the recent testing of what the North says was a

submarine-launched ballistic missile

have raised regional tensions.

North Korea is technically still at war with the South after the 1950-53 conflict ended in a truce, not a peace treaty, and regularly threatens to destroy the South's major ally, the United States.

ng/kms (AP, Reuters)

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