N. Korea Discordant on Obama Era, Nuclear Arsenal

By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, January 18, 2009

SEOUL, Jan. 17 -- North Korea sees the presidency of Barack Obama as an opportunity for much-improved relations with the United States, a U.S. scholar said Saturday after a trip to the country. Still, it says that it has turned its entire plutonium stockpile into weapons and that it is determined to remain a nuclear-armed nation until Washington abandons its "hostile policy."

That powerfully mixed message emerged this week from government statements and a round of interviews that top North Korean officials granted in Pyongyang, the capital, to Selig S. Harrison, a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

"They have very high hopes for Obama, but they want to confront him from a position of strength," Harrison said Saturday in a phone interview from Beijing, shortly after leaving Pyongyang. "They are very interested in the possibility that he will move away from the regime-change policies of the Bush administration and will move toward normalization."

Officials in the closed communist nation said Obama could demonstrate his desire for improved relations by shipping 200,000 tons of urgently needed heavy fuel oil, agreeing to a long-term food-supply agreement and allowing the North Korean Symphony to visit the United States, according to Harrison. The New York Philharmonic visited North Korea last year.

"If the new Obama administration takes its first steps correctly and makes a political decision to change its North Korea policy, the North and the United States can become intimate friends," Foreign Minister Pak Ui Chun told Harrison.

But North Korea also made clear in public statements this week, as well as in interviews with Harrison, that it has no intention of giving up nuclear weapons in the near future.

"We will never do such a thing as showing our nuclear weapons first, even in 100 years, unless the U.S. hostile policy and nuclear threat to the North are fundamentally terminated," North Korea's Foreign Ministry said in a statement this week.

Officials told Harrison that they have "weaponized" 68 pounds of plutonium -- believed to be enough for five or six bombs -- that the government manufactured after 2002, when President Bush turned away from a Clinton-era agreement that had frozen the North's production of plutonium.

The United States, along with China, Japan, Russia and South Korea, has been negotiating with the North in an attempt to remove the plutonium from the country.

"They could be bluffing," Harrison said, noting that North Korean officials offered no proof that they have made the weapons. He also said they declined to specify what "weaponized" means.

"They are now saying they are a nuclear-weapons state and please deal with us," Harrison said. "They are also saying that when their relations with the United States are fully normalized, then they can talk about what they will do with the weapons."

Harrison said he met for about six hours with Li Gun, a longtime nuclear negotiator and director of U.S. affairs in the Foreign Ministry, and several other senior officials.

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