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Doubts cast over N. Korea nuke claim

Staff and wires

North Korean leader Kim Jong Il
North Korean leader Kim Jong Il

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Special Report: The two Koreas 

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1994 agreement
North Korea promised to give up its nuclear weapons program and allow inspections to verify that it did not have the material such weapons would require. The country has yet to allow the inspections.
N. Korea nuclear facts
  • North Korea launched a medium-range "test" missile over Japan in 1998.
  • The 1994 Agreed Framework was signed by North Korea with the Clinton administration.
  • In return, an international consortium is building new nuclear reactors in North Korea.
  • SEOUL, South Korea -- South Korea has expressed doubt over a North Korean radio report that appeared to be an admission for the first time that Pyongyang has built nuclear weapons.

    South Korean officials say the uncertainty stems from a single spoken word used in Sunday's broadcast on state-run North Korean radio -- a possible linguistic mix-up which could spell the difference between a point of rhetoric and a major shift in the security balance of East Asia.

    Pyongyang Radio was first quoted by the South's Yonhap news agency as saying the country "has come to have nuclear and other strong military weapons to deal with increased nuclear threats by the U.S. imperialists."

    However, a South Korean Unification Ministry official told CNN Monday he could not be sure whether the radio announcer said North Korea "has come to have nuclear weapons" or that it is "entitled to have nuclear weapons" because the difference in interpretation is a matter of a single syllable.

    Though the ethnically homogeneous South and North Koreans share the same language, there are various differences in pronunciation across the Korean peninsula.

    The phrase used in the announcement is unclear. "Kajigaedu-oh-itda", which means 'entitled to have' sounds very similar to "kajigaedutta", which means to 'already possess.'

    Officials say they are also wary because it is not the way North Korea usually makes such important statements.

    Deliberate confusion?

    North Korea-watchers are now waiting to see if the report is a deliberate tactic by the North, or simply a mistake or misinterpretation by the state broadcaster.

    Yonhap said the language -- which appeared to go further than Pyongyang's previous claims to "be entitled to have nuclear weapons" -- may have been deliberately misleading.

    Analysts say Pyongyang could have intentionally broadcast this message -- whether it is true or not -- in an attempt to gauge the extent of international reaction to such news.

    "They are banking on the fact that the U.S., South Korea and Japan will ultimately come around and offer them new incentives to resolve the weapons of mass destruction issue," said Lee Chung-min, Associate Professor of International Relations at Yonsei University.

    Since last month, when the North admitted to having an active nuclear weapons program, diplomatic channels have been working overtime to clarify the issue and to reach a peaceful conclusion.

    U.S. administration officials, including Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, have said Washington believes Pyongyang has enough plutonium to make one or two weapons, but it does not know whether North Korea has enough enriched uranium to make a nuclear weapon.

    It was unclear whether the weapons referred to in the North Korean broadcast -- if they exist -- are based on a plutonium or uranium core.

    Washington has made it clear its current zero tolerance for any country trying to produce such weapons of mass destruction.

    Therefore, if North Korea was indicating in the report they have enough enriched uranium for a nuclear weapon, "that would make it more proximate for us to have to do something about it," a senior U.S. administration official said.

    'Hostile policy'

    In Octocber, Pyongyang revealed it had a clandestine weapons program, in violation of a 1994 agreement with the United States, but it has not admitted that it has a nuclear weapon.

    The agreement called for North Korea to freeze an earlier nuclear program in exchange for the United States promising to provide fuel oil and build two safer light-water reactors that do not produce weapons grade nuclear material.

    North Korea has since said the crisis spawned over the admission could be settled if the United States were to back off from its "hostile policy" toward the country.

    Last week, the international consortium -- consisting of the United States, Japan, South Korea and the European Union -- charged with implementing the 1994 agreement with North Korea agreed to suspend fuel oil deliveries to the Communist nation because of the nuclear revelation.

    The North has also threatened Tokyo that it could resume tests of its long-range missiles, if Japan develops a missile defense shield with the United States.

    Reuters contributed to this report.

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