TOKYO Feb. 10 -- North Korea on Thursday declared itself a de facto nuclear power, claiming in its strongest terms to date that it had "manufactured nuclear weapons" to defend itself from the United States and saying it would withdraw indefinitely from international disarmament talks.
Since withdrawing from the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and ejecting weapons inspectors in a dispute with the Bush administration in late 2002, North Korea has used less specific language, both publicly and privately, to describe the development of what it has dubbed a "nuclear deterrent." But on Thursday, an official North Korean statement employed wording that analysts and several Asian diplomats saw as a virtual declaration that it has become a nuclear power.
_____N. Korea's Statement_____
Full Text: The full statement by North Korea's foreign ministry on its nuclear program, as released in English by the North Korean news agency KCNA.
"In response to the Bush administrations increasingly hostile policy toward North Korea, we . . . have manufactured nuclear weapons for self-defense," the government said in an official statement through its Korean Central News Agency.
Without evidence of a nuclear test, considered difficult given North Koreas small size and broad border with its chief benefactor, China, North Koreas assertion remains just that -- an assertion. The statement, however, seemed to comport with estimates by U.S. intelligence officials, who believe that North Korea has developed at least a couple of nuclear devices and has reprocessed 8,000 spent fuel rods into plutonium -- potentially enough to make as many as six more.
The declaration, nonetheless, raised the stakes for a quick diplomatic solution to the North Korean nuclear issue while posing new hurdles for the Bush administration as it tries to bring Pyongyang back to disarmament talks that have been stalled since last June. In recent days, administration officials have briefed Asian allies on evidence that North Korea sold nuclear material to Libya in 2001, demonstrating the urgency of bringing Pyongyang into compliance.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who is winding up her first foreign trip since taking the helm of the State Department, warned North Korea to reconsider its decision to break off disarmament talks or face deepening isolation from the rest of the world and greater suffering for its people.
"With our deterrent capability on the Korean peninsula . . . the United States and its allies can deal with any potential threat from North Korea. And North Korea, I think, understands that. But we are trying to give the North Koreans a different path," Rice said at a press conference in Luxembourg with three European Union leaders.
Rice said the United States has assumed Pyongyang had a nuclear capability since the mid-1990s.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said North Koreas statement was worrisome in part because the hard-line communist nation is "probably one of the worlds leading proliferators of ballistic missile technology."
Speaking to reporters at a meeting of NATO defense ministers in Nice on the French Riviera, Rumsfeld said, "Given their dictatorial regime and their repression of their own people, one has to worry about weapons of that power in the hands of leadership of that nature." He said the North Korean leadership was not known for being "restrained."
In Washington, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said North Korea should return to six-party talks with the United States, China, Russia, South Korea and Japan.
"If North Korea commits to giving up its nuclear weapons and permanently dismantling its nuclear weapons programs, there are multilateral security assurances that will be provided to North Korea," McClellan told reporters. "We remain committed to the six-party talks," he added. "We remain committed to a peaceful, diplomatic resolution to the nuclear issue with regards to North Korea."
South Korea and Japan on Thursday called on Pyongyang to return to the disarmament talks and raised the possibility of international sanctions if it does not.
Asian diplomats had hoped that President Bushs relatively conciliatory State of the Union Speech last month would do the trick. After calling North Korea a member of the "Axis of Evil" with Iran and Iraq three years ago, Bush refrained from reiterating a hard-line approach against North Korea, instead emphasizing the need for international cooperation to solve the crisis.
But in its Thursday statement, North Korea latched on to Rices statements during her confirmation hearings, suggesting that her identification of North Korea as "an outpost of tyranny" meant U.S. policy -- demanding unilateral disarmament without economic and diplomatic incentives up front -- had not changed. North Korea outlined a rationale not only for indefinitely boycotting the six-party disarmament talks but also for increasing its nuclear arsenal.
"The Bush administration termed the DPRK" -- North Koreas official name -- "an outpost of tyranny, " North Korea said in Thursdays statement. "This deprived the DPRK of any justification to participate in the six-party talks" and "compels us to take a measure to bolster our nuclear weapons arsenal in order to protect the ideology, system, freedom and democracy chosen by the people in the DPRK."
North Korea was seen by analysts as withholding an earlier declaration as a nuclear power in part as a bargaining chip in the talks. Many believe it had delayed a return to the table to see if Bush was reelected, and then, what the new administrations policy might be.
Analysts concluded that North Koreas statement Thursday meant it no longer saw anything to lose, given that the Bush administration, with a largely similar cast, is now entrenched for four more years.
"They are using this to try to force the U.S. to deal with them now as a nuclear-possessing country, and to escalate their demands," said Pyong Jin Il, a leading Tokyo-based North Korea expert and editor of the Korea Report. "They are going to try to force the U.S. to deal with it on an equal stand as China, Russia, India and Pakistan. They are asking the U.S. and the rest of the world to negotiate with them as a nuclear power."
Some officials on Thursday called the statement more of the Norths typical brinksmanship designed to win the upper hand in negotiations. Several officials also compared it to previous missives -- particularly a statement to the press made by North Koreas vice foreign minister, Choe Su Hon, last September at the United Nations, where he said his government had "weaponized" nuclear material. North Korea has also privately told U.S. officials that it has nuclear weapons and has threatened to stage a test.
But other Asian diplomats and analysts saw the North Korean statement as significant because of its clarity, specificity and source -- an official government statement. A vital unknown factor, however, remains whether North Korea has mastered the technology to deliver such devices through its arsenal of short- and mid-range ballistic missiles. Even so, "the concern is that they have them at all," said one Asian diplomat. "They could be mounted on ships or planes and be delivered in a primitive but potentially effective way."
South Korea said Thursday the Norths decision to stay away from talks was "seriously regrettable." Foreign Ministry spokesman Lee Kyu Hyung said, "We again declare our stance that we will never tolerate North Korea possessing nuclear weapons."
Officials in Tokyo, as in Washington, have been looking to China -- which provides up to 80 percent of North Koreas energy and has on occasion cut off oil supplies to force it into submission -- to pressure Pyongyang. A Chinese official was reported to be planning a mission to North Korea this month, leaving Asian diplomats upbeat that at least lower level disarmament talks would soon take place. Shigeru Ishiba, Japans influential former defense minister and a legislator in its ruling Liberal Democratic Party, said it is time "for China to do more."
If China cannot get North Korea back to the bargaining table in short order, he said, international sanctions may now be in order. "Because the situation has now come this far, I personally believe it is time that we bring this issue before the [United Nations] Security Council," he said. Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, under pressure at home to impose bilateral sanctions against North Korea, immediately called on Pyongyang to return to the stalled nuclear talks. "It would be better if we resumed talks soon," he told the Kyodo News service. "Just as we have until now, we will cooperate with the other countries toward this end."
A broader fear for U.S. officials is proliferation by North Korea. Besides its publicly professed plutonium program, North Korea is believed to have a second uranium enrichment program.
The standoff with North Korea began after Pyongyang privately admitted to the uranium program in Sept. 2002, U.S. officials say, a violation of North Koreas earlier agreement with the Clinton administration to abandon its nuclear weapons programs. It touched off a tense two years in which North Korea kicked out weapons inspectors and announced the reprocessing of its spent plutonium rods.
But it has steadfastly denied admitting to the second uranium program, which again became the focus of attention last week after U.S. officials reportedly told China, South Korea and Japan that North Korea provided Libya with 1.6 tons of converted uranium that could be enriched to nuclear-bomb-grade level. Libya turned the uranium hexafluoride over to the United States last year as part of its agreement to give up its program of weapons of mass destruction.
"I think certainly you have to be concerned about the potential for sales to terrorist groups; I think North Korea would sell to anyone with hard currency," Undersecretary of State John R. Bolton, told reporters in Tokyo Wednesday morning before North Koreas announcement. "Its bad enough that they would sell missile technology or chemical or biological weapons capability, but the nuclear capabilities are obviously the most dangerous of all."
Staff writer Robin Wright in Luxembourg and special correspondent Akiko Yamamoto in Tokyo contributed to this report. Staff writer William Branigin contributed from Washington.