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North Korea: Is Pyongyang Bluffing About Its Nuclear Weapons?

  • Mark Baker

Efforts to convince North Korea to give up its nuclear ambitions suffered a setback yesterday with Pyongyang's admission that it already has nuclear weapons and is withdrawing from international negotiations. Reaction around the world was swift in condemning the statement and urging officials to continue diplomatic efforts.

Prague, 11 February 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Does North Korea really have a nuclear weapon?

That's the question on everyone's mind following yesterday's blunt admission by Pyongyang that it had already manufactured nuclear weapons in self-defense.

Outside of North Korea, it seems no one knows the answer with certainty.

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told journalists yesterday he simply does not know.

"I know there are countries whose intelligence say [North Korea] has [nuclear weapons], and [the North] says that they had them and they may have them," Rumsfeld said. "But I don't want to confirm that because I just can't do that."

The United States in the past has said North Korea may have one or two small nuclear devices, but that this cannot be confirmed.
"The Korean government cannot tolerate the position of North [Korea having] nuclear weapons." -- South Korea Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon

Yesterday's statement by North Korea was startling. Although Pyongyang hinted in the past that it has nuclear weapons, it was the clearest statement yet that it has already made them.

In addition, Pyongyang announced it has suspended its participation in six-party talks -- involving the two Koreas, the United States, Japan, China, and Russia -- aimed at convincing North Korea to give up its nuclear ambitions.

The statement cited rhetoric by the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush, which called North Korea an "outpost of tyranny." Given this attitude, the North Korean government said there is no reason to participate.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the group charged with monitoring countries' nuclear programs -- says it does not know the extent of North Korea's nuclear weapons-making capability.

IAEA spokesman Mark Gwozdecky told RFE/RL's Radio Farda yesterday that IAEA inspectors had not been active in North Korea for two years, and that it cannot verify the accuracy of the statement.

He said, however, that North Korea remains the IAEA's biggest concern.

"What we can say for sure is that they certainly have the raw materials, they have the capability, to separate the plutonium from spent [nuclear power] fuel rods," he said. "Add to that the fact that they've already demonstrated a missile capability, and so they may well have a delivery system. All of this together makes [North Korea] our biggest concern."

Some analysts say the North Korean statement may only be a bluff -- a bid by Pyongyang to improve its negotiating position at the six-way talks. They point out North Korea has yet to test a nuclear device -- an indication, they say, that it does not have one to test.

Gary Milhollin, the director of the U.S.-based Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control, says the statement may simply be a way for North Korea to attract attention.

"This statement by North Korea that it has nuclear weapons, and it doesn't want to talk to us anymore, what I think you could say about this is that they are trying to get our attention," he says. "They would like to get money from us, and if they don't, then we have to worry about what they might do next -- and that could include selling nuclear weapons to people we don't like, such as terrorists. That's the concern that we should have at this time."

Nevertheless, the statement provoked strong international reaction and a near universal call for North Korea to return to the negotiating table.

South Korea's reaction was especially strong.

"The Korean government cannot tolerate the position of North [Korea having] nuclear weapons," Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon told reporters yesterday in Washington. "We urge the North Koreans to abandon [their] program of nuclear weapons development and go onto international inspections."

The U.S. State Department called for a quick resumption of the six-party talks.

"Our position is that we will continue to seek a peaceful, diplomatic resolution of this issue," said U.S. State Department spokesman Adam Ereli. "The six-party talks, through a multilateral framework, remain in our view -- and in our partners' view -- the best, the most effective way to do this, and, I think, the means that promise the best result for everybody."

China -- North Korea's biggest ally -- urged Pyongyang to return to the negotiations, but did not comment publicly on its declaration that it has nuclear weapons. Analysts say the North Korean statement is especially embarrassing to Beijing.

The statement has also drawn attention to the Bush administration's strategy of strongly condemning the North Korean government while at the same time trying to deal with it through multilateral negotiations.

"The New York Times" was critical of the Bush strategy, saying that as Washington has turned increasingly confrontational, North Korea unfroze its plutonium program, sent home the international inspectors, and started building bombs.

Another respected U.S. newspaper, however, said the North Korean statement might push the Bush team to take an even stronger stance. "The Christian Science Monitor" said that, regardless of whether North Korea does or does not have a nuclear weapon, it crossed an international "red line" yesterday by saying that it does.