N. Korea: nuke ready to use
An August 2002 photo of construction at the Kumho reactor site.
LONDON, England (Reuters) -- North Korea's envoy in Britain says Pyongyang has a nuclear deterrent that was ready to use and powerful enough to deter any U.S. attack.
Ambassador Ri Yong Ho told Reuters Thursday in an interview that North Korea would only use its capability in self-defense. Asked if North Korea had a nuclear bomb, he said: "What we are saying is, a nuclear deterrent capability."
North Korea has long hinted that it had a nuclear bomb. It said last month it was prepared to demonstrate the existence of its nuclear deterrent "when an appropriate time comes."
But Thursday's comments appear to be the first time it has explicitly stated that it has a nuclear weapon ready to deploy.
Ri said the deterrent was made of plutonium, most of which was recently reprocessed but was extracted before a 1994 freeze on its nuclear weapons program under a pact with Washington. It was ready to use should the United States attack, he said.
In response, State Department spokesman Adam Ereli repeated the long-standing U.S. position that, "we have no intention of attacking North Korea."
The latest crisis in North Korea-U.S. relations erupted in October 2002 when U.S. officials said the Communist state was pursuing a clandestine nuclear weapons program that violated its international commitments.
In an apparent bid to defuse the crisis, Washington last month offered Pyongyang unspecified security assurances for the first time, in exchange for a complete, verifiable and irreversible end to its suspected weapons program.
Washington has ruled out a formal non-aggression treaty.
Ri said Pyongyang was prepared to make concessions on its original demand for a formal non-aggression treaty.
"We are prepared to consider written assurances on non-aggression," Ri said in his first interview since taking up his post in London.
If it deemed the U.S. proposal to be "genuine," North Korea stood ready to restart six-way talks on the nuclear standoff, Ri said. North Korean officials were contacting U.S. officials to get more details of the U.S. proposal, he added.
But Ri stressed Washington must commit itself to a "peaceful coexistence" and show a willingness for "simultaneous action" -- shorthand for both sides taking steps at the same time to answer conflicting concerns and resolve the crisis.
"If the U.S. proposal is truly based on simultaneous actions then we could hold a new round of talks. If the U.S. insists on denying this simultaneous action, it will only increase the suspicions on our side," he said.
The United States has played down the idea of simultaneous actions. "'Simultaneity' is not a word that we would use," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said last week.
Ri said North Korea's foreign minister sent a letter on Monday to the Italian presidency of the European Union and top EU foreign affairs officials explaining Pyongyang was willing to consider the U.S. offer of security guarantees and attend talks if it approved of the U.S. proposal.
China hosted an inconclusive round of six-way talks in August. Ri would not be drawn on a possible date for new talks.
Up the ante
But Ri said Washington's planned suspension of a project to build nuclear power stations in North Korea had raised doubts about whether Washington was sincere about defusing the crisis.
Ri said the suspension, if it went ahead, would have a "very negative impact on the dialogue process. ... This is why we can't talk about dates (for talks) yet," he added.
The United States wants to suspend the project for one year to see what comes of diplomatic attempts to persuade Pyongyang to abandon nuclear weapons programs.
The reactor project is based on a 1994 pact under which the North Koreans froze their nuclear arms program in return for two light-water reactors.
Analysts said North Korea was seeking to up the ante with Washington with its comments on a nuclear deterrent.
"They've got the best of both worlds here -- a virtual deterrent. They may not have (nuclear capability), but everybody thinks they have and have to assume they have. ... It's the next best thing to having one," said William Drennan, Korea expert, United States Institute of Peace, a government-funded think tank.
Copyright 2003 Reuters
. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.