SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — North Korea announced for the first time yesterday it has nuclear weapons, and it rejected moves to restart disarmament talks anytime soon, saying the bombs are protection against an increasingly hostile United States.
The communist state’s statement dramatically raised the stakes in the 2-year-old nuclear confrontation and posed a grave challenge to President Bush, who started his second term with a vow to end North Korea’s nuclear program through six-nation talks.
“We … have manufactured nukes for self-defense to cope with the Bush administration’s evermore undisguised policy to isolate and stifle the (North),” the North Korean Foreign Ministry said in a statement carried by the state-run Korean Central News Agency. The news agency used the colloquial term “nukes” in its English-language account.
The claim could not be independently verified. North Korea expelled the last U.N. nuclear monitors in late 2002. It is not known to have tested an atomic bomb, although international officials have long suspected it has one or two nuclear weapons.
The CIA has estimated that with a highly enriched uranium weapons program and the use of sophisticated high-speed centrifuges, North Korea could be making more. Some analysts and observers have put the estimate at six to eight.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the North had no reason to believe the United States would attack.
“The North Koreans have been told by the president of the United States that the United States has no intention of attacking or invading North Korea,” Rice said in Luxembourg. “There is a path for the North Koreans that would put them in a more reasonable relationship with the rest of the world.
“Let’s see what the North Koreans do down the road,” Rice told reporters on the flight home. “Everybody is urging them to get back to the talks.”
Traveling with Bush to North Carolina, White House press secretary Scott McClellan said the statement from North Korea was “rhetoric we’ve heard before.”
“We remain committed to the six-party talks. We remain committed to a peaceful diplomatic resolution to the nuclear issue with regards to North Korea,” he said.
Previously, North Korea told international negotiators in closed-door talks that it had nuclear weapons and might test one of them, South Korean officials say. The North’s U.N. envoy said last year the country had “weaponized” plutonium from its pool of 8,000 nuclear spent fuel rods. Those rods contained enough plutonium for several bombs.
Yesterday’s statement was North Korea’s first public announcement that it has nuclear weapons.
North Korea said Thursday its “nuclear weapons will remain (a) nuclear deterrent for self-defense under any circumstances.”
It said Washington’s alleged attempt to topple the North’s regime “compels us to take a measure to bolster its nuclear weapons arsenal in order to protect the ideology, system, freedom and democracy chosen by its people.”
Since 2003, the United States, the two Koreas, China, Japan and Russia have held three rounds of talks in Beijing aimed at persuading the North to abandon nuclear weapons development in return for economic and diplomatic rewards.
No significant progress has been made.
A fourth round scheduled for September 2004 was canceled when North Korea refused to attend, citing what it called a “hostile” U.S. policy.
“After its previous claims had failed to draw enough attention, North Korea now seeks to make people take it more seriously, create an atmosphere of crisis and make its negotiating partners pay more in order to persuade it to give up its nuclear capabilities,” a senior South Korean official said on condition of anonymity.
South Korea said Thursday the North’s decision to stay away from talks was “seriously regrettable,” and it repeated its previous estimate that Pyongyang has enough plutonium to build one or two nuclear bombs.
“We once again urge North Korea to rejoin the six-party talks without conditions so that it can discuss whatever differences it has with the United States and other participants,” South Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman Lee Kyu-hyung said. “We express our strong concern with the North Korean statement that it has nuclear weapons and we again declare our stance that we will never tolerate North Korea possessing nuclear weapons.”
In London, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan also urged North Korea to rejoin the talks, and he asked the other five nations to help.
“I expect that with efforts by the other countries involved, North Korea could be brought back to the table,” Annan said.
Russia’s Foreign Ministry said that while it respects North Korea’s concerns about its safety, it criticized Pyongyang’s statement and strongly urged a return to the talks. North Korea’s move “can only cause regret,” the ministry said, adding that Moscow believes “that the problem should be resolved through negotiations rather than arms race, especially nuclear arms race.”
The Chinese Foreign Ministry’s chief spokesman, Kong Quan, said in a statement on the ministry’s Web site that Beijing hopes the six-nation talks will continue.
“We consistently advocate the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula and the preservation of the peninsula’s peace and stability,” the statement said.
In recent weeks, hopes had risen that North Korea might return to the six-nation talks, especially after Bush refrained from any direct criticism of North Korea when he started his second term last month. During his first term, Bush said North Korea was part of an “axis of evil” with Iran and prewar Iraq.
On Thursday, North Korea said it decided not to rejoin such talks anytime soon after studying Bush’s inaugural and State of the Union speeches and after Rice labeled North Korea one of the “outposts of tyranny.”
“We have wanted the six-party talks but we are compelled to suspend our participation in the talks for an indefinite period till we have recognized that there is justification for us to attend the talks and there are ample conditions and atmosphere to expect positive results from the talks,” the North Korean Foreign Ministry said.
North Korea said it retained its “principled stand to solve the issue through dialogue and negotiations and its ultimate goal to denuclearize the Korean Peninsula remain unchanged.”
Such a comment has widely been interpreted as a negotiating tactic to get more economic and diplomatic concessions from the United States before joining any crucial talks. North Korea wants economic compensation and security guarantees in return for abandoning its nuclear pursuit.
For months, it has lashed out at what it calls U.S. attempts to demolish the regime of leader Kim Jong Il and meddle in the human rights situation in the North. Washington has said it wants to resolve the nuclear talks through dialogue.
In his inaugural speech, Bush vowed that his new administration would not shrink from “the great objective of ending tyranny” around the globe.
In his State of the Union address, Bush only mentioned North Korea once, saying Washington was “working closely with governments in Asia to convince North Korea to abandon its nuclear ambitions.”
Last week, Michael Green, the National Security Council’s senior director for Asian affairs, visited the region to relay Bush’s desire to restart the diplomatic process to the leaders of China, South Korea and Japan.
The nuclear crisis began in 2002 when U.S. officials accused North Korea of running a secret uranium-enrichment program in violation of international treaties. Washington and its allies cut off free fuel oil shipments delivered to the impoverished country under a 1994 deal with the United States.
North Korea retaliated by quitting the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in early 2003 and restarting its plutonium-based nuclear weapons program, which had been frozen under the 1994 agreement.
Rice warns that North Korea should avoid confrontation with world over nuclear issue
LUXEMBOURG (AP) – Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Thursday that North Korea should return to disarmament talks and avoid a path toward further international isolation. “The world has given them a way out and we hope they will take that way out,” she said.
Rice’s comments came after North Korea stated explicitly that it has nuclear weapons and said that it needs them as protection against an increasingly hostile United States.
“The North Koreans have been told by the president of the United States that the United States has no intention of attacking or invading North Korea,” Rice said during a news conference here with European Union leaders.
“There is a path for the North Koreans that would put them in a more reasonable relationship with the rest of the world,” she said, referring to an international disarmament effort that includes the United States.
Giving up nuclear weapons would offer hope for a better life to that country’s people, Rice said. North Korea is desperately poor, and people are fleeing the country to avoid starvation.
The North Korean statement may be a bluff meant to put the United States back on its heels before the regime finally does return to the disarmament table. North Korea told a visiting U.S. congressional delegation last month that it would return to those six-nation talks.
Asked to analyze the thinking in Pyongyang, Rice was almost dismissive.
“I’m not sure anyone ever gets very far by trying to second-guess the motivation of the North Korean regime,” she said.
“The fact is that we have for some time taken account of the capacity of the North Koreans to perhaps have a few nuclear weapons,” Rice said. “There’s no definitive _ I can’t go into the intelligence here _ but there’s no definitive answers of how many, but this has been since the mid-90s that the United States has assumed that the North Koreans could make such steps.
Traveling with President Bush to North Carolina Thursday, White House press secretary Scott McClellan told reporters, “It’s rhetoric we’ve heard before. We remain committed to the six-party talks. We remain committed to a peaceful diplomatic resolution to the nuclear issue with regards to North Korea.”
Talking to reporters en route to Ireland for a refueling stop, Rice noted that she previously had scheduled a meeting in Washington next Monday with South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki-Moon and also said that she and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld will see their Japanese counterparts soon and will discuss the North Korean situation.
“Let’s see what the North Koreans do down the road. Everybody is urging them to get back to the talks,” she told reporters. “I cannot judge the motivation of the North Korean government, nobody can judge.” Rice had characterized North Korea as an “outpost of tyranny” during her confirmation hearings.
“I can’t judge the North Korean leadership’s motivation,” she said Thursday. “I told the truth and I think the chief diplomat (Rice) ought to tell the truth.”
“We are ready to return to the six-party talks,” she said. “The North Koreans should be too.”
Rice said earlier that the United States isn’t treating North Korea differently from Iran, another nation in President Bush’s famous rhetorical axis of evil.
“The message is clear: give up these aspirations for nuclear weapons and you know life can be different,” Rice said. She also said that is the same message that Libya understood in renouncing its own nuclear ambitions.
Unlike Iran, North Korea had not been a frequent topic during Rice’s breakneck tour of eight European countries and Israel over the past week. She also visited the West Bank and the Vatican.
Rice used the trip to reach out to Europe, and Europe reached back.
It is too soon to measure success, but Rice seemed pleased as she neared the end of the breakneck tour.