- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 11, 2005

North Korea said yesterday it has taken a key step to build more nuclear bombs, as China resisted efforts by the United States to take a tougher stand with Pyongyang.

The Bush administration said yesterday North Korea’s announcement that it had removed spent fuel rods from a nuclear reactor in Yongbyon — a move that could lead to producing plutonium for nuclear weapons — only isolates the country further.

Washington and Pyongyang were already at odds this week after U.S. officials said satellite intelligence data showed the North could be preparing to test a nuclear device.

“We’ve seen a pattern develop from North Korea in recent months that indicates they’re headed in the wrong direction,” State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said yesterday.

“We think rather than further antagonizing other nations and isolating themselves … they should come back to talks and try to work constructively with the situation,” he said.

But China, which is hosting the stalled series of six-nation talks to ease the Korean nuclear crisis, said this week it opposed “exerting pressure or imposing sanctions” on North Korea to curb its nuclear programs.

“We believe such measures are not necessarily effective,” Foreign Minister spokesman Liu Jianchao told reporters at a briefing in Beijing Tuesday.

The Bush administration wants to resume the six-party talks — which include South Korea, Japan and Russia — but also has pressed China to use what Mr. Boucher called “robust diplomacy” to get Pyongyang to return to the bargaining table.

The North Korean Foreign Ministry statement said Pyongyang had “successfully finished” the unloading of some 8,000 spent fuel rods at Yongbyon, a site about 50 miles north of the capital.

U.S. officials accuse North Korean leader Kim Jong-il of violating a 1994 deal with President Clinton to halt the nuclear weapons programs in exchange for Western fuel subsidies and help in constructing a civilian nuclear power plant.

But the North Korean statement yesterday said it was the United States that had broken the deal by not completing the civilian plant.

“Accordingly, [North Korea] keeps taking necessary measures to bolster its nuclear arsenal for the defensive purpose of coping with the prevailing situation,” the statement said.

North Korea expelled international observers from Yongbyon in 2002, making its many assertions about nuclear capability impossible to verify.

Experts say the spent rods could produce enough plutonium for two nuclear bombs. U.N. officials believe the North already might have up to a half-dozen nuclear weapons.

Christopher Hill, the State Department’s point man on East Asia and the North Korean crisis, will be in South Korea tomorrow for yet another round of talks on how to contain the North’s nuclear program.

Henry Sokolski, executive director of the Washington-based Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, said many had “been in denial for a long time” about the North’s nuclear programs.

There is a method to what is perceived as the North Koreans madness, he said. The North Koreans “ask themselves: ‘What can we do to get them to treat us as equals?’ It’s just that simple.”

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