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N. Korea lays out nuclear intent

BEIJING — BEIJING - A senior North Korean official told diplomats from the United States and four other nations yesterday that his country will soon formally announce that it has nuclear arms, that it will test a bomb and demonstrate the ability to deliver the weapons, a Bush administration official said yesterday.

The statements by North Korea's deputy foreign minister, Kim Yong Il, ended any hopes that the six-nation talks that ended here this morning could lay the groundwork for persuading Pyongyang to abandon its nuclear ambitions. If the talks had in any way softened North Korea's resolve to pursue its program, it was not evident in the remarks by diplomats.

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A White House spokeswoman in Crawford, Texas, said the Bush administration remains determined that North Korea dismantle its nuclear program, but she did not respond directly to that country's latest claims.

"North Korea has a long history of making inflammatory comments that serve to isolate it from the rest of the world," said the spokeswoman, Claire Buchan. "We've made very clear that North Korea must completely, irreversibly, dismantle its nuclear program. And discussions are under way in Beijing. And that, in itself, is a very positive development because it has been something that the president has long believed is part of the solution there, a diplomatic solution."

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Some in the Bush administration believe that the next significant step - the declaration of North Korea as a nuclear power - could take place on Sept. 9, the 55th anniversary of the country's founding.

If North Korea goes forward with a test, it would be the eighth nation to become an acknowledged nuclear power, after the United States, Russia, Great Britain, France, China, India and Pakistan. Israel is also widely believed to have nuclear weapons.

But North Korea, with its collapsing economy, heavily militarized society and unpredictable leader Kim Jong Il, would be a "rogue" nuclear state that could brandish the weapons in disputes with neighbors or export them for cash. North Korea has missiles that can easily reach Japan and may have long-range missiles able to reach the West Coast of the United States.

"They are going to continue to threaten the world for rewards," said Lee Jung Hoon, professor of international relations at Yonsei University in Seoul, South Korea. "It's a big blow to the nonproliferation regime and to peace and stability in the region."

Yesterday's developments complicated the nuclear proliferation policies of the Bush administration, which also suspects Iran of pursuing a nuclear weapons program. Analysts say Iran is watching the North Korea example closely as it considers how to respond to mounting international concerns about its nuclear facilities.

The Bush administration, which is loath to reward Pyongyang anew for dropping a nuclear program it promised to halt nearly a decade ago, had hoped that North Korea might respond to growing pressure from China, South Korea, Russia and Japan, the other nations participating at the talks.

North Korea has a long history of sending conflicting signals. A North Korean negotiator similarly startled diplomats during talks here in April, saying for the first time that his country already had nuclear weapons. But Pyongyang agreed to this latest round of talks and is apparently interested in a third round before the end of the year.

But the escalating statements underscore a prime concern of many diplomats, that the international community is running out of time to address Pyongyang's nuclear program. Some experts believe North Korea has no intention of dismantling its weapons program and that its belief in the importance of a "nuclear deterrent" has only hardened since the U.S.-led war against Iraq.

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North Korea has said that it would be willing to drop its nuclear program in exchange for a nonaggression pact with the United States. The Bush administration has offered less formal security guarantees. The United States also has insisted that North Korea dismantle its nuclear program in a verifiable manner as a first step, before receiving any reward from Washington.

For the moment, North Korea has responded with more of its trademark brinkmanship. A Bush administration official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that in addition to announcing North Korea's nuclear intentions, negotiators said the North has the means to deliver nuclear weapons, an apparent reference to its arsenal of missiles.

U.S. officials have generally chosen to play down the North's statements, to avoid creating an atmosphere of crisis. The Bush administration official said the U.S. envoy, Assistant Secretary of State James A. Kelly, was not shocked by Kim's statement, having heard provocative assertions in the past.

"The North Korean presentation was exactly what we expected it to be, almost word for word," another Bush administration official said.

But the difference from previous North Korean assertions, one administration official noted, was that this came not in private but in front of diplomats from four other nations. The representatives of Russia, South Korea and Japan were "taken aback," and the Chinese were "visibly angry," the official said.

The statement served to embarrass China, Pyongyang's only regional ally.

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"The North Koreans keep humiliating and embarrassing them," apparently because they feel China is no longer on their side, a U.S. official said.

The North's apparent intent is to goad the Chinese into exerting pressure on the United States to make concessions.

"Everyone is in agreement that North Korea's negotiating tactics and strategy are not working for them. It increases their isolation and leads people to the conclusion that they're not interested in negotiating," the U.S. official said.

The North's announcements may have solidified opinion among the other five nations at the talks. The Bush administration focused its public comments yesterday on joint efforts with North Korea's neighbors to defuse the nuclear standoff.

An instrumental player in any deal will be China, North Korea's main supplier of fuel and food aid. China is a historic ally of its Communist neighbor dating to the Korean War, when hundreds of thousands of Chinese died helping North Korea.

But analysts believe China is losing patience with its difficult friend. The talks this week and in April have been the only formal sessions involving U.S. and North Korean negotiators since October, when North Korean officials acknowledged a secret enriched-uranium program.


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