- The Washington Times - Monday, June 2, 2003

From combined dispatches

SEOUL — North Korea acknowledged it has nuclear weapons and plans to build more to protect its leaders from the fate of Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, a U.S. congressman said yesterday after a visit to the communist nation.

North Korea said it was developing its nuclear weapons as “a response to what they saw happened in Iraq, with the U.S. removing Saddam Hussein from power,” said Rep. Curt Weldon, Pennsylvania Republican, who headed a delegation of American lawmakers on the three-day visit.

Mr. Weldon said in Seoul, a day after briefing South Korean officials about the trip, that North Korean officials acknowledged they had nearly finished reprocessing spent fuel rods — a move that could yield more nuclear weapons within months.

“They admitted to having nuclear capability and weapons at this moment,” said Mr. Weldon, vice chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. “They admitted to an effort to expand their nuclear-production program.”

In October, U.S. officials said North Korea first acknowledged a nuclear-weapons program in violation of a 1994 agreement. In April, American officials said North Korean negotiators made similar claims during a pause in talks sponsored by China.

Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz said yesterday that North Korea’s claims couldn’t be verified but shouldn’t be ignored.

“Certainly what we know suggests that we should take what they are saying very seriously,” he said at the end of a two-day trip to Seoul. He later flew to Tokyo and went immediately into talks with top Japanese officials.

Mr. Wolfowitz, on a swing through Asia aimed at reassuring allies that U.S. military restructuring will improve their security, yesterday forecast changes in front-line forces on the North-South Korean border.

South Korea and Japan are extremely anxious about U.S. intentions, especially because the transformation was started in the midst of the North Korean nuclear crisis.

U.S. officials say the restructuring is overdue and that it will enhance the ability to deter aggression by North Korea.

“Of course, any basic changes we make to our ground posture here will affect the 2nd Infantry Division,” Mr. Wolfowitz told reporters in Seoul. “That’s the heart of what we have here in peacetime.”

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