N. Korea Discloses Secret Nuclear Arms Program

Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- North Korea has admitted to pursuing a secret nuclear weapons program using enriched uranium in violation of its 1994 pledge to freeze its nuclear program, senior U.S. officials said Wednesday.

A visiting delegation of American diplomats confronted North Korean officials with evidence two weeks ago.

The North Koreans initially denied the accusations, but to the diplomats’ amazement, a senior official later acknowledged that the Communist nation was pursuing the nuclear weapons program “and more.” He would not specify what “more” meant, administration officials said.


And the North Koreans did not offer to abandon the program in exchange for U.S. concessions, as they have done in the past, the officials said.

The Bush administration officials would not say how far along the nuclear program was, or whether it has a workable atomic bomb and the means to deliver it.

The officials said that the governments of Japan and South Korea had been informed and that the administration is now consulting with Congress and U.S. allies about how to proceed.

“What we seek is a peaceful resolution of this matter ... , " one official said. “No one wants to see a nuclear-armed North Korea.”

The surprise disclosure poses yet another serious challenge to President Bush’s foreign policy team, which is already grappling with an unstable Afghanistan, the resurgence of suspected Al Qaeda terrorist attacks from Kuwait to Yemen and Indonesia, and the prospect of war with Iraq, which the U.S. also suspects of seeking to develop nuclear weapons.

The officials said they did not know why North Korea had confessed to the weapons program, which one of the officials called “very serious, a material breach of the agreed framework.”

Under the framework, North Korea agreed to freeze its plutonium weapons program in 1994 in exchange for the construction of civilian nuclear power reactors by the international community and a 20-year supply of heating oil while construction is underway.

In 1994, intelligence estimates said that North Korea had produced enough plutonium to make one or two bombs.

That assessment still stands, according to administration officials.

Nagging suspicions remained that North Korea could be cheating. In 1998, in response to intelligence reports that North Korea had been digging a massive underground facility in Kumchangri believed to contain a nuclear weapons development site, the U.S. sent a team of inspectors to see whether the North Koreans were cheating on their agreement to abandon a nuclear weapons program. The team found nothing but an empty cave.

President Bush initially took a hard line on North Korea, freezing contacts and branding it part of an “axis of evil.” But as the North Koreans began making overtures to South Korea and Japan, including the unexpected confession to having abducted Japanese citizens, Washington announced that it would send Assistant Secretary of State James A. Kelly to Pyongyang.

Kelly’s delegation arrived Oct. 3 to meet with North Korean officials on a wide range of issues, including demands that North Korea cease development of weapons of mass destruction and ballistic missiles and other threatening behavior.

When the American team confronted the North Koreans with the undisclosed evidence of a nuclear program, this one based on enriched uranium, the North Koreans initially denied the accusation, calling it a “fabrication” designed to pressure Kim Jong Il’s regime. But the following day, a more senior official, First Foreign Minister Kang Sok Joo, met with the U.S. delegation.

U.S. officials said Kang told them: “We have a nuclear weapons program and more.”

The Americans said that they did not know why the North Koreans, considered masters of stonewalling, had decided to confess.

“The last meeting we had was with Kang Sok Joo, and Secretary Kelly told him in the sternest terms that this was most unwelcome,” an official said. As to the North Korean reaction, “I would not describe it as apologetic,” the official said. “Kang Sok Joo was assertive, aggressive about it.”

Kelly and his delegation departed Pyongyang on Oct. 5 and flew to Seoul, where they informed South Korean President Kim Dae Jung. They then flew on to Tokyo, where they informed Japanese authorities.

The South Korean government was to hold an emergency Cabinet meeting today to discuss the issue.

It was unclear why the North Koreans had embarked on a uranium-based weapons program, rather than using the plutonium stockpiles they are believed to have. Uranium-based weapons are easier to produce and require a less sophisticated design. Because the first U.S. uranium-based nuclear bombs were dropped in 1945, there is a wealth of publicly available material about how to make them, nuclear weapons experts said.

However, crude uranium bombs are big and heavy, so it is unclear whether the North Koreans would have the technical capability to mount them onto their Taepodong ballistic missiles, which are believed to have a range long enough to hit Alaska.

The revelations could cripple the 1994 agreed framework and divide the U.S. and South Korea at a crucial juncture.

“It has the potential to put the U.S. and South Korea at odds with each other on an issue that each side sees as critical to its own security,” said an analyst in Seoul. For the United States, weapons of mass destruction are a top priority, whereas South Koreans are no longer as afraid of the North as they once were.

What is surprising is not that the North Koreans were cheating, but that they confessed to it, the analyst said.

“It shouldn’t be surprising to anyone that the North continues to do what it could in this area, because North Korea has its own security fears,” he said, adding that the regime has lost any Cold War-era assurances that its Communist allies in Beijing and Moscow would come to its defense if attacked.

“A nuclear weapons program is a poor man’s solution to that dilemma,” he said.

However, it was unclear why the Bush administration had chosen this time to confront North Korea -- or why it kept the North Korean admission from becoming public for two weeks.

Former State Department official Joel Wit, who worked to resolve the 1994 nuclear crisis and led the inspection team to Kumchangri in 1998, said the Bush administration has three options for dealing with the crisis.

It could seek negotiations with the North Koreans “and try to resolve this in a way that addresses our concerns, which is that they’re cheating on an agreement, and to find a face-saving way out,” said Wit, now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

He said the administration could also seek a multilateral agreement to reimpose tough sanctions against North Korea.

Or, if North Korea refused to abandon the weapons program, the Bush administration could threaten a preemptive strike, as it has done with Iraq, Wit said.

The disclosures will also complicate domestic politics in South Korea and Japan.

In Seoul, Kim Dae Jung, a lame duck whose party is widely expected to lose the December presidential election, will be placed on the defensive in pursuing the “sunshine policy” of engagement with the North, said Ahn Byung Joon, a Korean security specialist at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo.

In Japan, the revelations will make it difficult for the government of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi to pursue fast-track negotiations aimed at normalizing relations with North Korea, Ahn said.

Japan and South Korea reacted cautiously. Both nations expressed their belief that the matter should be resolved through dialogue, not confrontation.

Koizumi said, “We’d like to ask North Korea to respond sincerely to wipe out the suspicion of a nuclear weapons program.”

Tokyo added that it plans to raise the nuclear issue in normalization talks with North Korea scheduled for Oct. 29 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

South Korea, in an official statement from the Blue House, the presidential palace, said Seoul has been in close consultation with Tokyo and Washington since Kelly’s trip.

“In order to achieve the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, the Republic of Korea government calls upon North Korea to fully comply with all its commitments,” it said.


Times staff writer Mark Magnier in Tokyo contributed to this report.