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2005.02.12 00:10

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"The North Koreans are saying they will 'indefinitely postpone,' not cancel, the six-party talks, and that's a key difference," said Hajime Izumi, an expert on North Korea at Japan's University of Shizuoka. "They're not walking away, they're just looking for a way to find a position of strength."

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< N. Korea Declaration Draws World Concern >
Nuclear Arms Assertion Spurs Calls to Revive Talks

By Anthony Faiola and Philip P. Pan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, February 11, 2005; Page A01

TOKYO, Feb. 10 -- North Korea declared Thursday that it had produced nuclear weapons to defend itself from the United States and that it had suspended participation in multinational talks to halt its arms program.

The announcement provoked the Bush administration and its partners negotiating with North Korea to call for the resumption of six-party talks toward a peaceful resolution of the nuclear issue in the communist country.

While U.S. government analysts have said for some time that North Korea has the ability to produce nuclear armaments, it is uncertain whether the Pyongyang government possesses such weapons or the ability to adapt them as warheads for its missile systems.

North Korea has used progressively more specific language, in public and in private, to describe the development of a "nuclear deterrent" since it expelled U.N. weapons inspectors in a feud with the United States in late 2002 and withdrew from the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty the following January.

But on Thursday, a statement by the government of the reclusive North Korean leader, Kim Jong Il, contained the most explicit wording yet. "In response to the Bush administration's increasingly hostile policy toward North Korea, we . . . have manufactured nuclear weapons for self-defense," said the statement, issued through the official Korean Central News Agency.

North Korea is now the eighth country with currently declared nuclear weapons. The others are the United States, Britain, France, China and Russia, all signatories of the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty, and India and Pakistan, which have not signed the treaty. Israel is considered by analysts to have nuclear weapons, but has not acknowledged possessing them. South Africa built a bomb in the 1970s but later renounced its nuclear program.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, returning to the United States after a trip to Europe, called for a resumption of the six-party talks, which also include China, Japan, Russia and South Korea. "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 at a news conference in Luxembourg.

The White House played down the significance of the North Korean statement. "It's rhetoric we've heard before," press secretary Scott McClellan told reporters traveling with President Bush in North Carolina. "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."

U.S. officials informed Asian allies last week that North Korea had reprocessed 8,000 spent fuel rods into weapons-grade plutonium and appeared to have exported nuclear material to Libya. U.S. officials have estimated that North Korea has produced enough nuclear material for six to eight devices.

Intelligence officials also have said that North Korea would have the capacity to produce up to six additional nuclear weapons yearly with a program in place to produce highly enriched uranium.

The North Korean statement harshly criticized the Bush administration, saying U.S. statements calling for diplomacy were the "far-fetched logic of gangsters."

"The true intention of the second-term Bush administration is not only to further its policy to isolate and stifle the DPRK . . . but to escalate it," the statement said, using the initials of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. It called U.S. statements "a bid to mislead the world public opinion."

Analysts said the North Korean statement represented an open rebuke of China, the North's closest ally, principal trading partner and primary source of food and fuel shipments.

China has publicly opposed the development of nuclear arms in North Korea, and President Hu Jintao is reported to have warned Kim in private letters not to build such weapons. China has also repeatedly urged the world to be patient with the North, taking the lead in promoting the six-nation talks and a diplomatic solution.

For two years, North Korea played along with its economic and political patron, participating in three rounds of talks in Beijing and refraining from declaring itself a nuclear power. By defying China now, analysts say, North Korea appears to be betting that the Chinese leadership has little choice but to tolerate its escalating nuclear brinkmanship with the United States.

Asian diplomats had hoped for a resumption of the six-party talks, which were suspended last year after North Korea appeared to be awaiting the outcome of the U.S. presidential election. Bush, who has referred to North Korea as part of an "axis of evil," refrained from such rhetoric during his State of the Union address last week, emphasizing the need for international cooperation to solve the crisis.

But the North Korean statement objected to Rice's use of the term "outpost of tyranny" during her Senate confirmation hearings last month, saying "the official political stance of the U.S. contained no word showing any willingness to coexist."

Analysts had considered a nuclear declaration by the North to be a bargaining chip it had withheld in the multilateral talks. Now that the Bush administration is in its second term, the statement indicates that the secretive government no longer has anything to lose, the analysts said.

"They are using this to try to force the U.S. to deal with them now as a nuclear-possessing country, and to escalate their demands," said Pyong Jin Il, a Tokyo-based North Korea expert and editor of the Korea Report. "They are going to try to force the U.S. to deal with it on an equal stand as China, Russia, India and Pakistan. They are asking the U.S. and the rest of the world to negotiate with them as a nuclear power."

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, meeting with NATO ministers in Nice, in the south of France, said there was call for concern "if you believe them that they have weapons."

"Given they're a dictatorial regime and the repression of their own people, one has to worry about weapons of that power in the hands of leadership of that nature," Rumsfeld said.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said at the same meeting that North Korea's withdrawal from the six-party talks "would be unsuitable."

South Korea said that the North's decision to stay away from talks was "seriously regrettable." Foreign Ministry spokesman Lee Kyu Hyung said, "We again declare our stance that we will never tolerate North Korea possessing nuclear weapons."

In Beijing, the government's initial reaction to the North Korean declaration was cautious.

"We have taken note of the relevant report, and are monitoring the development of the situation," Kong Quan, the Foreign Ministry spokesman, said in a statement. "We consistently advocate the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, and safeguarding peace and stability on the peninsula. We hope the six-party talks will continue."

Officials in Tokyo, as in Washington, have been looking to China to pressure the North. China provides as much as 80 percent of North Korea's energy and has on occasion cut off oil supplies to force it into submission.

The standoff with North Korea began after what U.S. officials have said was the North's private admission in October 2002 of operating a uranium enrichment program, a violation of its agreement with the Clinton administration to abandon nuclear weapons programs. This touched off a tense two years in which North Korea, denying that it had an enrichment program, expelled weapons inspectors and announced the reprocessing of its spent plutonium rods.

Analysts say that the Pyongyang government, which is seeking billions of dollars in energy, economic aid and loans in return for giving up its nuclear ambitions, may be calculating that the current mood will move the Bush administration toward something it has been loath to do: giving in to the demands of other parties in the talks, chiefly China and South Korea, to pursue a softer line with North Korea.

"The North Koreans are saying they will 'indefinitely postpone,' not cancel, the six-party talks, and that's a key difference," said Hajime Izumi, an expert on North Korea at Japan's University of Shizuoka. "They're not walking away, they're just looking for a way to find a position of strength."

Pan reported from Beijing. Staff writers Josh White in Nice and Robin Wright in Luxembourg, special correspondent Akiko Yamamoto in Tokyo and researcher Robert Thomason in Washington contributed to this report.

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