North Korea claims it has nuclear arms

Statement confirms long-held suspicions, may deepen rift with U.S.

`The old blackmail game'

Bush says it's a ploy by a regime reputed for calculated brinkmanship

April 25, 2003|By Gady A. Epstein and David L. Greene | Gady A. Epstein and David L. Greene,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIJING - North Korean negotiators acknowledged to U.S. officials in talks this week that their country has developed nuclear weapons, an unprecedented admission that stokes fears that Pyongyang might export the weapons or conduct a test on the peninsula.

The warning was delivered Wednesday to Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly, here for three-way talks involving the United States, North Korea and China over the future of the North's nuclear weapons program, U.S. officials said last night.

North Korea's statement confirmed long-held suspicions that Pyongyang possessed at least one or two nuclear weapons. But the outright acknowledgment in a diplomatic forum threatened to deepen the rift between the United States and a country that President Bush labeled as a member of an "axis of evil."

Bush, in comments to NBC News, characterized the declaration as another negotiating ploy by a regime reputed for calculated brinkmanship, and maintained his goal of total disarmament by Pyongyang.

"They're back to the old blackmail game," Bush said. "One of our goals and objectives must be to strengthen the nonproliferation regimes," the president said, "and get the whole world focused on proliferation of weapons of mass destruction or the materials for weapons of mass destruction. And North Korea is making my case that we've got to come together."

A White House source said that North Korea's chief delegate at the talks in Beijing, Ri Gun, told Kelly about North Korea's weapons as the two officials were speaking at a social gathering after formal discussions Wednesday.

The Associated Press reported that Kelly received a specific threat from North Korea that it might test, export or use the nuclear weapons, depending on U.S. actions. The AP also said that Kelley was told during the formal discussions that North Korea has reprocessed all 8,000 spent nuclear fuel rods in its possession. That would give North Korea the capability to produce a half-dozen or more weapons.

But a senior State Department official stressed last night that "there was a lot of ambiguity. They did not use words like `test' or `export.' " This official said, however, that the North Korean delegation made clear "what they have and what they can do."

North Korean officials also discussed how their country might destroy the weapons, if they decided to do so, the State Department official said.

The trilateral talks concluded today with a brief, informal meeting, a U.S. embassy spokesman said. Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing also held separate sessions, with the U.S. and North Korean delegations. Kelly was scheduled to leave today for South Korea and Japan for consultations with the two nations.

`Fish or cut bait'

The Bush administration has made a calculated effort to downplay North Korea's provocations in the hopes of persuading Pyongyang that the United States won't reward threats or extortion. But this week's nuclear confession appears to reinforce pessimistic predictions from many Korea watchers in this region that the standoff on the peninsula will only intensify.

"The blackmail has just increased exponentially," said a senior diplomat here who watches North Korea closely. "The North Koreans are engineering this to put the U.S. into a position where it's fish or cut bait."

The talks this week marked the first formal sessions between U.S. and North Korean negotiators since the nuclear standoff began in October, when North Korean officials acknowledged a secret enriched-uranium program to Kelly in talks in Pyongyang.

Since then, North Korea has kicked out international atomic inspectors, withdrawn from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, re-opened a mothballed nuclear facility and, as recently as last Friday, stirred fears with a vague statement that it may be producing plutonium for bombs.

Speaking in Washington yesterday, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell insisted that North Korea must "come to understand that we will not be threatened, we will not respond to threats."

"We look for a way forward that will eliminate this threat and put North Korea on a path to a better future, a better future that will provide a better life for its people," Powell said. "And so we will analyze the results of this first set of discussions and see where we are going to go."

The latest developments are likely to re-ignite a debate about whether the Bush administration has taken the correct approach to Pyongyang dating back to the beginning of the latest standoff - and before that to Bush's inclusion of North Korea in his post-Sept. 11 "axis of evil" speech.

The Bush administration has declined to engage directly with Pyongyang, demanding that North Korea dismantle its nuclear weapons program before Washington negotiates economic aid for the impoverished nation or provides a security guarantee, which Pyongyang has long insisted upon. But some experts believe that approach is unrealistic, and that Washington will have to negotiate in earnest if it wants to avoid further escalation.

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