- The Washington Times - Friday, April 25, 2003

North Korea acknowledged for the first time yesterday that it has nuclear weapons, although it is still not clear whether it plans to perform any tests, a Bush administration source said after two days of talks with the North in Beijing.
U.S. intelligence agencies estimated years ago that North Korea had one or two nuclear weapons. But the admission is significant in terms of how the rest of the world views the North Korean threat, diplomats and arms-control analysts said.
"They said what we always knew: that they do have [nuclear] weapons," said the administration source familiar with the discussions in Beijing. "That doesn't shock us. We've been saying that. Now they said it."
President Bush, although not commenting directly on the talks in Beijing, criticized North Korea's proliferation of deadly weapons in an interview taped yesterday with NBC News.
"They are back to the old blackmail game, and one of our goals and objectives must be to strengthen the nonproliferation regimes," the president said, according to a transcript provided by NBC.
The administration source dismissed as "not accurate" reports that the North Koreans had threatened to test their weapons soon. "They never used the word 'testing.' … We're still translating, but it's being overplayed a bit," the source said.
Although "test" and "testing" were not specifically mentioned, the North Korean delegation promised to "prove" its assertion that it possesses the weapons. Officials and analysts speculated that could mean testing, as well as sales to others.
North Korea's admission reportedly was made Wednesday by Ri Gun, deputy director-general of the American Affairs Bureau at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
U.S. officials would not discuss the substance of the talks in Beijing or which steps the administration plans to take next.
They said they will analyze the meetings carefully after the return of the delegation headed by James Kelly, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs.
Asked about the reported admission, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher told reporters: "We have certainly said for many years that we thought North Korea had nuclear weapons, so it would not come as any great surprise for them to say something like that. They said a lot of things that require careful analysis."
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said that "strong views were presented" by all sides, including China, which hosted the talks.
"The North Koreans should not leave the meetings in Beijing, now that they have come to a conclusion … with the slightest impression that the United States and its partners will be intimidated by bellicose statements or by threats," Mr. Powell told the U.S. Asia-Pacific Council.
Although the talks were supposed to last three days, meetings with all three nations at the table were held only on Wednesday, Mr. Boucher said. Bilateral U.S.-Chinese and North Korean-Chinese meetings took place yesterday, and the same format is expected to be adopted today.
Mr. Kelly's delegation is scheduled to travel to Seoul today and to Tokyo tomorrow to brief officials there on the Beijing talks
The United States wanted South Korea and Japan to participate in the meetings with the North Koreans, but Pyongyang insisted on direct dialogue with Washington. The three-way format was a compromise.
The Bush administration said it wanted to discuss an irreversible and verifiable end to the North's nuclear-weapons program, although it predicted that other issues would come up as well.
Pyongyang, which has been seeking a nonaggression pact with the United States, fears that the quick U.S. military victory in Iraq might embolden Washington to use force against North Korea. North Korea, along with Iran and prewar Iraq, constitute Mr. Bush's "axis of evil."
North Korea issued a statement yesterday calling on the United States to renounce its "hostile" intent before there could be discussions about dismantling the North's nuclear-weapons program and the verification of that process.
"The U.S. should show its political will to make a bold switchover in its hostile policy toward [North Korea]," the official KCNA news agency said. "This is the master key to making the talks fruitful."
Mr. Kelly is the highest-ranking Bush administration official to visit Pyongyang. During a trip there in early October, he confronted the North with intelligence that it had developed a secret uranium-enrichment program, violating a 1994 nuclear deal known as the Agreed Framework.
The North, which then admitted to having the program, reopened its nuclear complex in December and expelled U.N. weapons inspectors. In January, it withdrew from the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
A week ago, North Korea issued a statement that said, "As we have already declared, we are successfully reprocessing more than 8,000 spent fuel rods at the final phase."
On Monday, it issued a new translation to say: "As we have already declared, we are successfully going forward to reprocess work more than 8,000 spent fuel rods at the final phase."
U.S. officials believe enough plutonium can be extracted from the rods to make up to a half-dozen nuclear weapons.

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