SEOUL, South Korea -- North Korea threatened on Monday to build nuclear weapons as a deterrent to what it calls a "hostile" U.S. policy -- the communist government's first public declaration of its nuclear ambitions.
The statement marked a sharpening of the North's tone in its standoff with Washington. U.S. officials say the North Koreans told them privately that the country already has nuclear bombs and plans to build more -- but until now Pyongyang had not openly stated its intention to develop an arsenal.
"If the U.S. keeps threatening the DPRK with nukes instead of abandoning its hostile policy toward Pyongyang, the DPRK will have no option but to build up a nuclear deterrent force," North Korea's official news agency said, using the acronym for the nation's official name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
Also for the first time, North Korea linked its nuclear efforts to rebuilding its moribund economy.
The North's "intention to build up a nuclear deterrent force is not aimed to threaten and blackmail others but reduce conventional weapons under a long-term plan and channel manpower resources and funds into economic construction and the betterment of people's living," the North's official news agency said.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said Monday that North Korea was "acknowledging what the world knows ... that they've created a circumstance where their own people are suffering as a result of the decisions that the government has made."
Although Washington has repeatedly said it prefers a diplomatic solution to the nuclear crisis, Pyongyang has continued to escalate the confrontation -- seeking to force the United States into negotiations.
Since late last year, the North has expelled U.N. nuclear inspectors, quit the global arms control treaty, restarted its frozen atomic facilities, and declared it had all but finished reprocessing 8,000 nuclear spent fuel rods -- a process that could yield several bombs within months.
But until now, Pyongyang referred only to its need for "physical deterrence" against what it calls U.S. plans to invade the country. President Bush says he prefers a diplomatic solution, but has not ruled out military options.
During talks in Beijing in April, North Korea told U.S. diplomats it is willing to give up its nuclear programs in return for security guarantees and economic aid, which it needs to fight the severe privation and food shortages its 22 million people suffer.
Despite its economic plight, North Korea keeps a 1.1 million-strong military, the world's fifth-largest. Its "army-first" policy calls on its hunger-stricken people to bear economic hardships and build a strong military. The North's news media churn out daily anti-American propaganda.
In 2001, North Korea for the first time admitted that the size of its conventional forces "hampers" its economy and offered to reduce them if the United States withdrew its 37,000 troops from South Korea.
Last week, the United States said it will withdraw its troops further south from the inter-Korean border. It says talks aimed at depriving North Korea of its nuclear ambitions will eventually have to discuss reducing North Korea's huge deployment near the border.
Addressing Japanese lawmakers at the end of his first official visit to Tokyo, South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun repeated Monday that his country would never accept a nuclear-armed North Korea, but acknowledged that negotiating an end to the standoff would take time.
"I am not hoping that this issue can be solved in a day or two," Roh said.
Bush, Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and Roh have had separate summits in recent weeks and agreed to seek a peaceful resolution to the crisis over North Korea's nuclear programs. But all three leaders warned of tougher measures if Pyongyang escalates tensions.
The Koreas announced Monday that they agreed to connect their railways at the border on Saturday, the first such link in a half century. Korea was divided at the end of World War II, and the last train to cross the border did so shortly before the 1950-53 Korean War.
It remains unclear when U.S. and North Korean officials will meet again to discuss ending the nuclear crisis. North Korea has said it might consider U.S. demands for talks involving several nations, if it can first meet one-on-one with the United States. Washington says talks to defuse tensions should include Russia, China, South Korea and Japan.
The dispute flared in October when U.S. officials said North Korea admitted it had a clandestine nuclear program in violation of a 1994 agreement with Washington.