North Korean officials threaten to resume ballistic missile tests

Nation will soon restart its reactor, diplomat says

January 12, 2003|By KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

SEOUL, South Korea - North Korea threatened yesterday to resume ballistic missile tests, ratcheting up the crisis over its nuclear weapons programs.

In another development, a North Korean diplomat suggested that the isolated Asian nation could soon start extracting plutonium from spent reactor fuel rods and restart a nuclear reactor to make even more material for nuclear weapons.

Coupled with a new swell of angry rhetoric from Pyongyang, where 1 million people participated in a government-staged rally, the latest moves by North Korea appeared aimed at stepping up the pressure on President Bush to negotiate.

Separately, in talks with Gov. Bill Richardson of New Mexico, North Korean delegates proposed a dialogue with Washington. But U.S. officials said yesterday that the offer fell well short of American demands.

North Korea suspended its missile tests in September 1999, one year after raising global alarm by test-firing a medium-range ballistic missile that arched over Japan and landed in the Pacific Ocean. The moratorium was to have lasted through at least next year.

But Pyongyang's ambassador to China called a news conference in Beijing to announce that missile tests may resume. The declaration came just a day after North Korea said it was withdrawing from the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

"Because all agreements have been nullified by the United States side, we believe we cannot go along with the self-imposed missile moratorium any longer," said Ambassador Choe Jin Su.

U.S. officials condemned the threat but did not indicate that Washington would immediately react.

Choe apparently referred to the 1994 Agreed Framework, in which North Korea agreed to freeze its nuclear reactors in return for energy supplies from the outside world.

After North Korea admitted in October to having a secret uranium enrichment program, the United States cut off deliveries of heavy fuel oil to the impoverished country. Pyongyang responded by expelling United Nations inspectors and taking steps to reactivate its Yongbyon nuclear complex.

A North Korean diplomat in Vienna, Austria, said yesterday that the Yongbyon reactor would become operational in just a few weeks.

The diplomat also said that a plutonium reprocessing plant is in a state of "readiness."

U.S. officials estimate that within months the plant could churn out enough plutonium for a half-dozen nuclear bombs. North Korea is thought to have one or two nuclear devices.

Meanwhile, an unusual diplomatic channel in Santa Fe, N.M., involving Richardson, a former U.N. ambassador, apparently failed to make any headway.

While the North Koreans told Richardson that they were willing to have a dialogue, "unfortunately, the North Korean delegates apparently did not address the issues of concern to the international community," said Nancy Beck, a State Department spokeswoman.

Richardson, who briefed Secretary of State Colin L. Powell on his talks, said North Korea's deputy ambassador to the United Nations, Han Song Ryol, told him that North Korea had no intention of making nuclear weapons.

The Bush administration, while saying it is willing to talk to North Korea, has insisted that it will not enter broader negotiations until the North takes steps to reverse its nuclear development programs.

A senior Bush administration official said Han apparently repeated earlier North Korean statements that it would allow the United States to verify that it is not making nuclear weapons if Washington drops its "hostile" policies.

"That doesn't cut it," said the senior official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

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