- The Washington Times - Friday, October 3, 2003

SEOUL — North Korea said yesterday it has solved “all the technological matters” involved in using plutonium from nuclear fuel rods to build atomic bombs, a brazen statement prompting more international hand-wringing over Pyongyang’s intentions.

North Korea’s announcement appeared to be part of a calculated effort to escalate tension in the standoff with the United States and its allies, possibly to gain leverage in any negotiations on the nuclear issue.

A more ominous scenario is that Pyongyang plans to build nuclear bombs regardless of warnings from the international community.

“All the technological matters have been solved fully in the process of making a switchover in the use of plutonium,” said North Korea’s official news agency, KCNA.

It is impossible to independently verify the claim because the country has expelled international inspectors from its nuclear facilities.

Yesterday’s statement came a day after the communist state said it finished reprocessing the rods and had started using plutonium to make nuclear weapons as a deterrent against what it calls a U.S. plan to invade.

Washington says it has no intention of invading and that Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions are of “serious concern” to the international community.

North Korea said the reactor in its main nuclear complex at Yongbyon, north of Pyongyang, was operating normally and will produce more spent-fuel rods.

When reprocessed with chemicals, the 8,000 spent-fuel rods can yield enough plutonium to make five or six bombs, experts estimate. U.S. intelligence analysts believe North Korea already has at least one or two nuclear bombs.

KCNA said yesterday that North Korea “will maintain and steadily increase its nuclear deterrent force as a self-defensive means to cope with the [United States] ever more undisguised threat to mount a pre-emptive nuclear attack on the DPRK” — the acronym for the North’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said North Korea’s neighbors should urge Pyongyang “to stop moving in this direction” and to stay with diplomacy.

“We are examining ways, in cooperation with our colleagues in the area, to provide the kinds of security assurances that might help to move the process further along,” Mr. Powell said Thursday.

South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun, who called the North’s Thursday statement about making atomic weapons “a bombshell,” reiterated that concerns over North Korea’s nuclear ambitions make it difficult for him to send South Korean troops to help U.S. forces in Iraq.

Senior U.N. envoy Maurice Strong met North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Choe Su-hon on Thursday at the United Nations and said Pyongyang still was offering to drop its nuclear-weapons development and allow international inspections if the United States promises not to attack.

However, Mr. Strong said North Korea reiterated that the United States’ “hostile” posture means Pyongyang will continue its nuclear program.

The nuclear dispute flared a year ago when U.S. officials said North Korea admitted running a secret nuclear-weapons program in violation of international agreements.

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