WASHINGTON -- North Korea startled a six-nation conference on East Asian security by announcing its intentions to formally declare its possession of nuclear weapons and to carry out a nuclear test, a Bush administration official said Thursday.
North Korean Deputy Foreign Minister Kim Yong Il also told the gathering in Beijing that his country has the means to deliver nuclear weapons, an apparent reference to the North's highly developed missile program, the official said.
The comments cast a pall over Thursday's plenary session, which included representatives of the United States, South Korea, China, Japan and Russia, in addition to North Korea, raising questions about the success of negotiations scheduled to conclude this morning.
Nevertheless, the diplomats agreed on the need to hold more such talks and probably will, a South Korean official said.
James Kelly, the chief U.S. delegate, demanded at the talks that North Korea engage in the verifiable and permanent dismantling of its nuclear weapons programs, in return for which the United States would provide security guarantees and economic benefits to the impoverished nation, said the U.S. administration official, asking not to be identified.
The U.S. official said that when Russia and Japan attempted to point out some positive elements of the U.S. presentation, the North Korean delegate attacked them by name and said they were lying at the instruction of the United States. According to the administration official, China's delegate appeared visibly angry over Kim's statement but responded in a moderate tone.
Kim said his country was taking its position because the United States clearly had no intention of abandoning its hostile policy toward North Korea, the U.S. official said.
U.S. intelligence has not detected overt signs that North Korea is preparing to conduct a nuclear weapons test, said one U.S. defense official, speaking on the condition of anonymity. But such a test would presumably be underground, so preparatory work would be difficult to detect, the official said.
The United States has long believed that North Korea has at least one or two nuclear weapons and could have five or six within a matter of months.
The United States, North and South Korea, Russia, Japan and China are trying to balance U.S. demands for an end to North Korea's nuclear program and the communist nation's insistence on a nonaggression treaty with Washington and humanitarian aid.
"There is a consensus that the process of six-party talks should continue and is useful," said Wie Sung-rak, director-general of the South Korean Foreign Ministry's North American Affairs Bureau. Like other delegates from the talks, he chose his words carefully to avoid suggesting a formal agreement had been made.
Asked to verify a Russian media report that all six would meet again within two months, he said, "It's possible, but you have to wait until tomorrow morning."
Russian Alexander Losyukov, the deputy foreign minister and the head of Russia's delegation, earlier had said the six reached a "common understanding" to meet again within the next two months, probably in Beijing, the ITAR-Tass news agency reported.
In the past, U.S. officials have noted that if North Korea conducted a nuclear weapons test, it would sacrifice a substantial part of its stockpile of weapons-grade plutonium, possibly halving its inventory from two weapons to one. However, Pyongyang had appeared to make moves aimed at restarting its plutonium-production line.
Nuclear weapons can be made from either plutonium or uranium.
The U.S. administration official said Kim denied Thursday that the North has been developing a uranium-based nuclear weapon. The Bush administration has said that North Korea acknowledged such a program during talks in Pyongyang in October 2002.
Chief among the Bush administration's concerns is that a nuclear-armed North Korea would be able to export nuclear weapons or technology or would touch off an arms race in Northeast Asia.
In the face of U.S. demands that North Korea permit the verification of any commitment to disarm, Kim rejected inspections of any kind, the U.S. official said.
The official added that North Korea's presentation at Thursday's session essentially reaffirmed what a Pyongyang delegate had told Kelly privately during a three-way meeting last April in Beijing. At the time, Kelly was told that North Korea not only possessed nuclear weapons -- a first-time disclosure -- but also was prepared to test or to transfer them.
In a separate meeting after Thursday's talks adjourned, Japan urged North Korea to let the children of five Japanese citizens kidnapped and spirited to North Korea years ago join their parents, who were permitted last year to return to their homeland. North Korea, however, reiterated its assertion that Japan had broken a promise by not returning the five abductees to Pyongyang, according to a statement by the Japanese government.