Researcher: N. Korea has 'weaponized' plutonium

Sunday, January 18, 2009

BEIJING -- North Korea has hardened its stance on disarmament, saying it has "weaponized" plutonium into warheads, but hopes for better ties with president-elect Barack Obama, a U.S. researcher who visited the North said Saturday.

Officials say the weapons cannot be inspected and Pyongyang might keep them even if it normalizes relations with Washington, said Selig Harrison, director of the Washington-based Center for International Policy's Asia program.

Harrison said he met this week with the North's nuclear envoy, Ri Gun, and other officials.

The officials said "North Korea is now a nuclear weapons state and will not commit itself now on when it will give it up as a result of denuclearization negotiations," Harrison said in Beijing. "We are not in a position to say when we will abandon nuclear weapons," he quoted Ri as saying.

Harrison said the North's "much, much harder line" might be due to the rise of military hard-liners after leader Kim Jong Il suffered a stroke. North Korea has denied reports that Kim had been seriously ill, but Harrison said based on information from his own sources in Pyongyang he believed Kim suffered a stroke.

"He has recovered and he is now making what is described to me as 'key decisions' but is not dealing on a day-to-day basis with detailed issues as he had done before," Harrison said.

Foreign Minister Pak Ui Chun and others said the North wants better relations with Obama's government, according to Harrison. He said they want Obama to make sure the North receives promised energy aid and to provide help to revive North Korean agriculture.

He said the North wants its symphony orchestra invited to perform in the United States following a Pyongyang concert last March by the New York Philharmonic.

Pyongyang has made normalizing ties with Washington a priority but the United States says it must disarm first. The two governments have never had formal relations.

The latest round of six-nation talks aimed at stripping the North of nuclear capability broke down in December. The participants are the two Koreas, the United States, China, Russia and Japan. The North agreed earlier to disarm in exchange for aid, but that deal became deadlocked over how to verify North Korea's past nuclear activities.

"All of those I met said the North has already weaponized the 30.8 kilograms (67.8 pounds) of plutonium listed in its formal declaration and that the weapons cannot be inspected," Harrison said. When he asked what "weaponized" meant, "the answer I got was, `It means warheads."'

He said that much plutonium would produce four to five warheads, depending on the grade of plutonium, the specific weapons design and the desired explosive yield.

North Korea has tested ballistic missiles, fueling fears it might be trying to develop one that can carry a nuclear warhead.

Also Saturday, North Korea's military called South Korea's president a "traitor" and accused him of preparing for a military provocation. In the rare statement, which was carried by the state-run Korean Central News Agency, the military warned that Seoul's hard-line stance compelled Pyongyang to "take an all-out confrontational posture."

South Korean presidential spokesman Lee Dong-kwan said he had no immediate comment.

South Korea has repeatedly called for dialogue with the North.

Koh Yu-hwan, a North Korea expert at Seoul's Dongguk University, said the comments could be a negotiating tactic aimed at Seoul and Washington ahead of Obama's inauguration Tuesday.

In a separate statement Saturday carried by the KCNA, the North Korean foreign ministry said the country "can live without normalizing the relations with the U.S., but not without nuclear deterrent."

Harrison also said the officials threatened to suspend work on disabling the North's Yongbyon reactor if it does not receive 200,000 tons of fuel oil promised by Japan. The oil was part of the disarmament deal but Tokyo withheld its share due to a dispute over the North's abduction of Japanese nationals.

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: