Tuesday, July 15, 2003

North Korea’s nuclear activities, including its repeated claims to be reprocessing stored nuclear-fuel rods, remain a “serious problem” for the United States, Bush administration officials said yesterday.

Larry Di Rita, the senior Pentagon spokesman, told reporters that the combination of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and its missile and weapons exports is a major danger.

“It’s a serious circumstance,” he said.

Pyongyang has said it has a nuclear-arms program and the Pentagon believes the hermit Stalinist state possesses nuclear weapons, Mr. Di Rita said.

“So that’s serious, and North Korea is the world’s worst proliferator of ballistic-missile technology. So that’s a pretty deadly combination,” he said in a meeting with reporters at the Pentagon.

Asked about intelligence reports indicating that North Korea has begun reprocessing spent fuel rods that were supposed to be kept in storage under a 1994 U.S.-North Korea agreement, Mr. Di Rita declined to discuss intelligence matters.

Still, “the North Koreans themselves are telling us that they’ve reprocessed it,” he said, noting recent press reports. “When they told us they had nuclear weapons, they meant it, and I’m not in a position to characterize the intelligence assessment of what the North Koreans are telling us, but certainly what they’ve told us in the past have been worth paying attention to.”

Mr. Di Rita said the Bush administration is exploring “all diplomatic possibilities” for dealing with North Korea’s nuclear program and its weapons proliferation.

At the State Department, spokesman Richard Boucher said North Korea’s international isolation is growing as a result of its nuclear ambitions.

“The entire world has said it’s unacceptable for North Korea to develop nuclear weapons,” he said.

Mr. Di Rita said recent North Korean declarations about having nuclear weapons, and the rejection of international controls on its nuclear program have lent credibility to claims of reprocessing the fuel rods.

“I can only say that of late it has been important that when the North Koreans speak, it’s worth paying close attention to,” he said.

Reprocessing the 8,000 fuel rods has been viewed by intelligence officials as a key indicator of North Korea’s drive to abrogate the 1994 agreement, which was supposed to have frozen Pyongyang’s nuclear-weapons program in exchange for international assistance to build nuclear power-generating stations.

Asked if the problem is drifting toward conflict, Mr. Di Rita said, “Let me just say the situation with North Korea is a serious situation and it’s something that we should take seriously. It’s a problem not just for the United States, but a problem for the world.

“This is a country that proliferates technology and violates the kind of treaties that it has signed … . It’s a country that has sent ballistic-missile technology to a lot of bad places. It’s a country that, if it felt it were in its interest, would sell nuclear technology if it determined that,” he said.

U.S. officials have said North Korea first informed the United States that it had nearly completed reprocessing the stored fuel rods during talks in Beijing in April.

The statement, made by North Korean official Li Gun, prompted the CIA to review its intelligence on the North Korean reprocessing of stored fuel rods.

The Washington Times reported on July 4 that the CIA now believes some spent-fuel reprocessing is under way in North Korea.

Then last week, North Korean officials informed U.S. officials at the United Nations that Pyongyang had completed reprocessing of the fuel rods.

A U.S. official said yesterday that intelligence agencies have not been able to verify the North Korean reprocessing claims.

“It’s a situation that bears watching,” the official said on the condition of anonymity. “Obviously, this is one area where the North Koreans believe they have some leverage” in talks with the United States.

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