By Anthony Faiola and Sachiko Sakamaki
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, May 10, 2005
SEOUL, May 9 -- A North Korean official told visiting Japanese scholars in Pyongyang last week that a nuclear test was an "indispensable" step toward proving the nation's military capabilities to the world and suggested his government might conduct one soon, the Japanese head of the delegation said.
Word that North Korea is considering a nuclear test came as the government appeared to hint late Sunday that it was willing to return, under certain conditions, to six-party negotiations aimed at its nuclear disarmament that have been stalled for 11 months. During those talks, North Korea had suggested it might conduct a test. But the statement to the Japanese delegation was the first mention by a North Korean official about a test since recent intelligence reports warning of such a possibility.
Yasuhiko Yoshida, a former U.N. proliferation expert who led the delegation, said in an interview that he held two discussions on May 3 with officials at the North Korean Foreign Ministry's Institute for Disarmament and Peace. Yoshida said the comment about testing came during the second discussion, in an unarranged phone call placed by the institute's deputy director, Pak Hyon Jae. According to Yoshida, Pak said a North Korean nuclear test was "indispensable," adding, "you'll find . . . out soon" whether a test will be conducted.
"It is important that this official at a government think tank admitted that nuclear testing was necessary," said Yoshida, a noted North Korea specialist at Osaka University of Economics and Law. He led a humanitarian medical mission to Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, and was interviewed by telephone after returning from the eight-day trip Monday.
[North Korea on Tuesday dismissed speculation that it was preparing a nuclear test, calling it U.S. propaganda, the Associated Press reported, citing the Korean news media.
["The United States is making noise, saying that our country will have an underground nuclear test . . ." the state-run Rodong Sinmun daily wrote in a commentary, according to the country's official KCNA news agency.]
Officials of Asian nations are trying to find a way to jump-start the six-nation talks, which involve North and South Korea, China, Japan, Russia and the United States. Some Asian diplomats say they fear the talks will never resume. The leaders of China and South Korea -- North Korea's two largest trading partners -- issued a joint statement in Moscow on Monday calling on North Korea to return to the table. It declared itself a nuclear power in February and vowed to stay away from the talks, citing the Bush administration's "hostile policy." But on Sunday, it hinted that it may yet be willing to resume the talks.
A spokesman for the Foreign Ministry said North Korea wanted to meet with U.S. officials to confirm reports in South Korea that Washington was ready to recognize the North as a "sovereign state." The spokesman, quoted by KCNA, also called for bilateral negotiations, but indicated they could take place during a resumption of the six-nation talks.
North Korea has repeatedly demanded one-on-one talks with Washington, but the Bush administration has steadfastly refused. But raising the possibility of bilateral negotiations within the framework of the multilateral talks is thought to be more palatable to the Bush administration, which has agreed to such an arrangement in the past.
In an interview last week, Mohamed ElBaradei, head of the United Nations' International Atomic Energy Agency, urged North Korea not to conduct an atomic test and said other countries had allowed the crisis to worsen in recent months.
"The solution is to find a forum where we put all the grievances of both sides on the table, including the sense of insecurity felt by North Korea, as well as its economic and humanitarian needs, and the deep concern by the international community about proliferation," ElBaradei said.
South Korean officials have become particularly concerned over an escalating war of words between the Bush administration and the government of the North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. Pyongyang is demanding an apology from the United States over Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's statement calling North Korea an "outpost of tyranny." More recent statements critical of Kim made by President Bush appeared to raise tensions, as North Korea responded by calling Bush a "half-baked man" and a "philistine."
Song Min Soon, South Korea's deputy foreign minister, who is scheduled to meet with his U.S. counterparts this week in Washington, said both North Korea and the United States needed to tone down their rhetoric.
"Leaders should be providing solutions rather than slogans," Song said in an interview. "What we don't need are statements like 'he's the bad guy' or these categorizations of the regime. What we need is an answer aimed at the problem and not a giving in to anger. These public exchanges are not going to solve anything."
Sakamaki reported from Tokyo. Staff writer Dafna Linzer in Washington contributed to this report.