N. Korea Celebrates Leader's Birthday

SEOUL, South Korea -- North Korea marked the birthday of leader Kim Jong Il amid heightened nuclear tensions on Wednesday, comparing Kim to a daring porcupine routing an arrogant tiger of the United States.

Amid its festive mood, however, North Korea received a major put-down from rival South Korea, which said there would be no large-scale economic cooperation until the dispute over the communist North's nuclear weapons programs is resolved.

North Korea flouted the international community last Thursday by announcing it had nuclear weapons and was staying away from international nuclear talks where the United States, China, Japan, Russia and South Korea have urged it to abandon its nuclear ambitions.

The announcement was a key theme in North Korea's celebration of Kim's birthday this year, with its propaganda-filled media claiming that last week's "bombshell" declaration demonstrated Kim's "incomparable courage." Kim turned 63 on Wednesday.

"The Americans swagger like a tiger around the world, but they whimper before our Republic as the tiger does before the porcupine," Pyongyang Radio said. "That's because we have our Great Leader Kim Jong Il, who is undefeatable."

The dispatch was alluding to a popular North Korean folk tale and TV animation where a porcupine defeats a tiger by sticking its quills in the tiger's nose.

To the outside world, the North's latest maneuver further isolated the impoverished country.

"North Korea must return to six-party talks as soon as possible," South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun told a meeting of his top security ministers Wednesday. "If North Korea has anything to allege, it should make the allegations at the negotiating table."

North Korea has refused to rejoin the six-nation negotiations until Washington abandons its alleged "hostile" policy.

Earlier Wednesday, South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon said he told U.S. officials during a weeklong trip to Washington that his country has no plans to begin large-scale economic cooperation with the North before it agrees to end the nuclear dispute.

Still, Ban said South Korea would continue to provide "humanitarian" aid to the poverty-stricken state.

Ban also talked with his Chinese counterpart, Li Zhaoxing, on the phone Wednesday and asked Beijing to help persuade North Korea to return to six-party talks, South Korean officials said.

In the run-up to Wednesday's birthday, North Korea has escalated anti-American rhetoric and urged its people to rally around Kim at a time of heightened tensions with the United Sates.

Earlier this week, North Korean media depicted last week's announcement as an example of Kim, this time, roaring like a tiger at the yapping mutt of the United States.

"No matter how wild the U.S. imperialists may run, our country remains unfazed and the spirit of our army and people is sky-high," the North's main Rodong Shinmun daily wrote in a Wednesday editorial for the birthday.