North Korea lambasts US report on religious suppression

North Korea's foreign ministry has lambasted the United States for adding the Stalinist country to a list of nations of "particular concern" over religious repression.

In a statement carried in English by the official Korean Central News Agency, the ministry slammed Washington for staging a "groundless mud-slinging" campaign against Pyongyang.

"The freedom of religion is fully guaranteed by law and many religionists are free to conduct their activities under our best socialist system," it said.

North Korea "will further consolidate and develop people-centered socialism of its own style no matter what others may say," the ministry added.

In an annual report last week, the US State Department singled out the North for special criticism over religious repression. It also denounced Pyongyang for cracking down on unauthorized groups.

"There have also been unconfirmed reports of the killing of members of underground Christian churches," said State Department spokesman Richard Boucher.

"People who proselytize or who have ties overseas appear to have been arrested, subjected to harsh penalties according, again, to unconfirmed reports," he added.

The North's foreign ministry, however, rejected the US report as "ridiculous" and accused the United States of killing Muslims during its bombing campaign in Afghanistan.

"It is self-evident, therefore, that the United States is not in a position to admonish other countries over the religious issue," it said.

North Korea has stepped up its strident verbal attack on US President George W. Bush, blasting him for for creating tension on the Korean peninsula.

But Washington has shrugged off Pyongyang's comments saying it was still waiting for the North to resume talks between the Cold War enemies.

Bush made a direct appeal earlier this month to North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il to re-open a stalled dialogue with South Korea and the United States.

"And so I must tell you that I've been disappointed in Kim Jong-Il not rising to the occasion, being so suspicious, so secretive," Bush said.

US-North Korean ties have been tense since Bush took office in January and suspended dialogue amid a review of US policy toward Pyongyang.

In June Bush offered to resume talks, urging the North to reduce conventional forces and halt the spread of weapons of mass destruction. But the North has yet to respond to the US offer.