North Korea defiantly declared today that it was immediately pulling out of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, the most important pact to stem the spread of nuclear weapons, in a bold escalation of its challenge to the United States and the international community.
The announcement came only hours after two North Korean diplomats flew to Santa Fe, N.M., presumably on orders from North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, to talk to New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a former U.N. ambassador who has had dealings with North Korea for years.
It was unclear whether the North Korean decision, announced this morning in a detailed statement by the communist country's official news agency, KCNA, had been prepared before the regime's unorthodox involvement of Richardson in the crisis.
North Korea said its withdrawal from the treaty was a "legitimate self-defensive measure."
"The nonproliferation treaty is being used as a tool for implementing the hostile U.S. policy toward [North Korea] aimed to disarm it and destroy its system by force," KCNA said. The statement criticized the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency -- which this week issued a resolution calling on North Korea to readmit arms inspectors -- as a tool of the United States that was trying to "encroach on our country's sovereignty and the dignity of the nation."
In a similar crisis in 1993, North Korea threatened its withdrawal from the nonproliferation treaty during a struggle over inspections at its Yongbyon nuclear complex, 55 miles north of Pyongyang, the capital. Under international law, there should be 90 days' notice to exit the treaty, but North Korea said in today's statement that the clock had started running back in 1993 so the withdrawal would take place immediately.
Opting out of the 1970 nonproliferation treaty solidifies North Korea's status as an international pariah and could roll back some of the progress it had made in establishing diplomatic relations with Western countries, such as Britain and Australia. But the move also absolves North Korea of its obligation to admit nuclear inspectors to its facilities. And it could weaken the ability of the Bush administration to push the matter before the U.N. Security Council, which oversees enforcement of the treaty and signatory countries.
In today's statement, North Korea reiterated an earlier assertion that it has "no intention to produce nuclear weapons, and our nuclear activities at this stage will be confined only to peaceful purposes, such as the production of electricity."
The statement said that North Korea is seeking a "peaceful settlement of the nuclear issue through negotiations." It also said North Korea might be willing to set up a "separate verification" procedure with the United States, circumventing the U.N. inspection agency, to prove that it does not have nuclear weapons.
Relations between the United States and North Korea have been deteriorating since October, when the North Koreans told Assistant Secretary of State James A. Kelly that they were buying equipment to enrich uranium, which can be used for nuclear bombs.
In reaction to the North's Thursday announcement, South Korea called an emergency meeting of its National Security Council, and President Kim Dae Jung said more dialogue was needed.
Japan demanded North Korea retract its statement, and a Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman said Moscow was concerned. There was no immediate comment from the U.S.
"This is another way that the North Koreans are pushing forward to make this a bilateral issue with the United States," said Daniel Pinkston of the Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, Calif. He said none of the other nearly 200 member nations had ever withdrawn from the treaty, so it remains unclear how the move by North Korea will be dealt with by the international community.
"It is unprecedented. The North Koreans are charting new territory," he said.
North Korea watchers have termed moves over the past weeks mere brinkmanship on the part of Kim to force the United States into negotiations, possibly to extract more humanitarian aid. But some believe that North Korea also aspires to become a nuclear power such as India, Pakistan and Israel, all of which have nuclear capabilities but are not signatories to the treaty. North Korea joined the treaty in 1985 under pressure from the Soviet Union, which had offered to help Pyongyang with its chronic energy shortages if it became a member.
After the Soviet Union collapsed, the promised aid never materialized, and North Korea balked at treaty obligations that required it to admit inspectors to nuclear facilities such as Yongbyon. At Yongbyon, North Korea last week expelled nuclear inspectors. The Pyongyang regime is also in the process of restarting a 5-megawatt nuclear reactor that scientists believe is better designed for producing weapons-grade plutonium than electricity.
The previous crisis was resolved with a 1994 deal under which North Korea froze its nuclear program in return for energy assistance from the United States and U.S. allies. Former President Carter was the broker of that pact on behalf of the Clinton administration. And as the current standoff progresses, it appears that Richardson might be assuming the same role.
"I want to help my country," Richardson told a New Mexico television station before the meeting Thursday. He said the meeting was "not going to be substantial" and noted that he is "not an official mediator." After dinner with the two North Korean envoys, neither side commented.
Bush administration officials were careful to discourage speculation about any impending diplomatic breakthrough, noting that the North Koreans would have to be prepared to abandon their nuclear weapons program. "We were given to understand that they have something to tell us, and they want to tell it to Richardson," a senior State Department official said. "He's somebody the North Koreans feel comfortable talking to.
"It doesn't matter to us if they're talking to the Chinese, the Russians, the South Koreans or Bill Richardson. What matters to us is, do they have something to say? Are they ready to get rid of the [nuclear] programs? We don't have any details."
Richardson, New Mexico's newly elected governor, is a Democrat and close associate of former President Clinton. He also served as a diplomatic trouble-shooter and secretary of energy for the former president. Richardson once presented Kim, known to be a fan of American westerns, with a tape of the film "Maverick."
In 1994, while a congressman, Richardson was on a visit to Pyongyang when a U.S. Army helicopter was shot down after it strayed into North Korean territory. He spent five tense days helping negotiate the return of the pilot's body and the eventual release of the surviving co-pilot. He earned the North Koreans' respect during that visit and is one of the few Americans to have had sustained contacts with the reclusive regime.
Richardson met the North Koreans -- Han Song Ryol, the deputy permanent representative at the United Nations, and a second diplomat, Mun Jong Chol -- Thursday over a three-hour dinner, and they are scheduled to talk again today. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell approved the meeting, as well as the North Koreans' travel from their base in New York, but Richardson is not acting as a U.S. envoy, a State Department official said.
The White House signaled discomfort over the fact that the North Koreans had chosen Richardson, instead of a figure in or close to the Bush administration, as their interlocutor.
A White House official said, "One might assume that if they were serious about taking us up on the offer, they might just call us directly. One might assume that they have something else in mind if they don't call us directly. But we don't know. People who say they can predict the motives or any particular action by the North Koreans have a degree of clairvoyance far beyond my capabilities."
From the North Korean point of view, Richardson is a natural choice, Asia experts said.
Pyongyang has always had trouble communicating with the United States, with which it has no formal diplomatic relations, since the 1950-53 Korean War ended with an armistice, and no peace treaty has been concluded. As one of the world's most isolated regimes, it tends to cleave to traditional Asian concepts of diplomacy that may seem antiquated to its more sophisticated Asian neighbors.
"In Asia, personal relationships matter," noted E. Han Kim, a University of Michigan professor.
The United States views the current conflict with North Korea as a diplomatic dispute triggered when Pyongyang violated the agreement under which it would abandon its nuclear weapons program in exchange for energy assistance and new civilian nuclear reactors.
"To us, it's the U.S. versus North Korea," E. Han Kim said. "To them, it's a war of words between George Bush and Kim Jong Il, and Kim Jong Il is feeling threatened.... So they don't want to deal directly with George Bush."
Wendy Sherman, who coordinated North Korea policy for the Clinton administration, noted that Richardson has had years of contacts with North Korean officials.
"He is a citizen, there can be only be one administration policy at a time, and I'm sure he'll convey the administration's approach accurately," Sherman said.
Demick reported from Seoul and Efron from Washington.