North Korea says work has begun on nuclear arms

Diplomat claims fuel rods have been reprocessed despite plans for summit


SEOUL, South Korea - With negotiations about its nuclear program expected to resume in weeks, North Korea said yesterday that it had completed reprocessing 8,000 spent nuclear fuel rods and was using the plutonium to make atomic bombs.

But with an eye to a "red line" unofficially drawn by the Bush administration, a North Korean diplomat said in New York that his impoverished nation would not export its bombs or its bomb-making capacity to other countries.

"We are in possession of nuclear deterrence and we're continuing to strengthen that deterrence," Choe Su Hon, North Korea's vice foreign minister, told reporters at North Korea's mission to the United Nations in New York, the New China News Agency reported. "We have no intention of transferring any means of that nuclear deterrence to other countries."

Talks to resolve the Korean arms crisis are expected to resume in Beijing next month with the United States and four other countries.

The fuel rods had been sealed for almost a decade by an international agreement until last winter, when North Korea expelled U.N. inspectors and started reprocessing. Choe told reporters on Wednesday that the North had completed reprocessing all of the stored rods, an assertion that was repeated yesterday in a dispatch by the North's state-run Korean Central News Agency.

The North "made a switchover in the use of plutonium churned out by reprocessing spent fuel rods in the direction [of] increasing its nuclear deterrent force," an unidentified spokesman for the North's Foreign Ministry said.

New rods from a newly-restarted research reactor will be reprocessed and "churned out in an unbroken chain," the statement continued, referring to a five-megawatt reactor in Yongbyon, which is believed capable of producing enough plutonium for one or two bombs a year.

North Korea, run by a Stalinist dictatorship for almost six decades, is largely closed to foreign reporters and it is impossible to independently evaluate the claims.

"There is no way to verify what they are saying, but that does not mean it is not true," Scott Snyder, Korea representative for the Asia Foundation, an American research center, said here yesterday.

Snyder, the author of Negotiating on the Edge, a book on North Korean negotiating tactics, added: "The North Koreans have commonly used crisis escalation as a vehicle to draw attention to their issues and shape the environment in ways that they feel suit their purposes."

As North Korea's latest wave of harsh language reached Seoul yesterday, South Korean diplomats were saying that their isolated, impoverished neighbor had no chance but to return to the negotiating table.

"North Korea is prepared to respond to six-way talks, and they are not in a position to oppose talks," South Korea's vice unification minister, Cho Kun Shik, told reporters at a briefing yesterday.

"Based on our direct and indirect contacts with North Korean officials and our analysis, we believe that North Korea has a clear will to continue the talks," he said.

North Korea's recent comments, Cho said, are a "tactic to boost its negotiating power." By claiming to have a nuclear arsenal and the ability to make it grow, the North would gain leverage in the Beijing talks, expected to resume by the end of next month. The possession of a half-dozen bombs would also give Pyongyang the luxury of conducting a test.

In the statements from Pyongyang and New York, the North's diplomats said that their government had made no promises to continue the multilateral talks that began with a first meeting in Beijing in late August.

"Certain mass media is circulating rumors as though we have just made promises to participate in the next round of the six-party talks," Choe said in New York. "Unfortunately, this is not true."

The North's tough stance comes immediately after a military parade here on Wednesday, where South Korea showed off new military hardware for the first time in years, including batteries of new Popeye air-to-ground missiles.

Speaking on Armed Forces Day, South Korea's president, Roh Moo Hyun, announced an 8 percent increase in defense spending, one of the biggest jumps in recent years.

Roh said it was unacceptable that South Korea, with one of the world's largest economies, was not able to defend itself on its own.

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