Unofficial U.S. group visits N. Korea facility

North says it showed its `nuclear deterrent'

January 11, 2004|By Barbara Demick | Barbara Demick,LOS ANGELES TIMES

SEOUL, South Korea - Trying to end months of speculation about whether it really has a nuclear bomb, North Korea said yesterday that it had displayed its "nuclear deterrent" for an unofficial U.S. delegation that toured its secretive Yongbyon complex.

Members of the unofficial delegation confirmed that the North Koreans had allowed them into the facility that is the heart of the nation's nuclear program, but said they still needed time to analyze and report on what they had seen.

The North Korean "intention was to show us their status. They wouldn't do that unless they wanted us to come up with certain conclusions," Jack Pritchard, a former State Department official, said in a telephone interview from Beijing last night. "We had enough time for what we wanted to see. We were satisfied."

The senior scientist of the delegation, Siegfried S. Hecker, a former director of Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, will report in detail to the U.S. government and later to the public about the nuclear facilities, Pritchard said.

"We had a good visit," added Frank Januzzi, an aide to Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., a Delaware Democrat and another member of the delegation. Januzzi said they also discussed with the North Koreans issues, ranging from the nuclear facilities to human rights and economic reforms.

The delegation spent a full day Friday at Yongbyon, a compound 55 miles north of Pyongyang, the capital. The visit to Yongbyon is the first by outsiders to the compound since December 2002, when North Korea expelled international arms inspectors. It comes after a year of intense speculation among intelligence agencies about whether North Korea, one of the world's poorest and most authoritarian countries, has in fact produced a nuclear bomb.

In contrast with other countries that try to conceal their nuclear programs, North Korea has been boasting loudly about it in an apparent effort to gain leverage with the United States to win economic aid and political concessions.

"The United States compelled [North Korea] to build a nuclear deterrent. We showed this [to the delegation]," a spokesman for the North Korean Foreign Ministry was quoted as saying yesterday by the official KCNA news agency.

"The permission given ... to visit the facility was aimed to give Americans an opportunity to confirm the reality by themselves and ensure transparency," the report said.

The visit was criticized by some as unwelcome interference with the Bush administration's policy of eschewing direct contacts with North Korea in favor of multilateral negotiations. But the multilateral process - which involves six countries - has been moving with excruciating slowness. The CIA believes that North Korea produced several crude nuclear weapons before 1994, when its nuclear program was frozen under a treaty with the United States.

Last year, after the expulsion of the arms inspectors, North Korea is said to have removed 8,000 spent fuel rods from a cooling pond at Yongbyon and started the process of extracting weapons-grade plutonium from them.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper. Times staff writer Mark Magnier in Beijing contributed to this article.

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