North Korea threatened Thursday to seize the property of an international consortium that has been developing two light-water nuclear reactors on the country's east coast. The statement came in response to an international decision to suspend work on the project for one year.
In a furious statement, an unnamed spokesman for the North Korean Foreign Ministry also cast doubts about the future of six-party talks aimed at resolving the nuclear crisis.
"Why Washington is so getting on the nerves of [North Korea] at a time when the resumption of the six-party talks is high on the agenda?" the North Korean spokesman demanded in the statement distributed in indignant, fractured English over the official news service. "This compels [North Korea] to doubt whether the U.S. would come out to make a switch-over in its policy."
At the same time, a North Korean envoy in London, Ri Yong Ho, boasted in an interview with Reuters news agency that his country had a "nuclear deterrent capability" that it could use if attacked by the United States.
Washington reacted calmly to the threats, noting that North Korea's incendiary rhetoric is often not matched by its actions. U.S. officials said the best place to discuss the future of the reactors, along with the peaceful resolution of all North Korean nuclear issues, is at a new session of talks between North Korea, South Korea, the United States, Japan, Russia and China.
"China is actively involved in working to set up another round of those talks, and we support those efforts," State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said.
"I believe we are presented with a good opportunity to resume the six-party talks," Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Wang Yi said during a visit to Washington on Thursday.
"All parties should try to seize this opportunity and try to narrow their differences through consultations. We all need to get well prepared for the second round," Wang said.
Last week, Wang visited Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, with Wu Bangguo, China's No. 2 Communist Party official and head of parliament. North Korea promised the visiting Chinese that it would return for a second round of negotiations shortly and consider a new offer by the Bush administration that promised North Korea immunity from attack if it dismantled its nuclear weapons.
Wang came to Washington to brief U.S. officials on the trip and exchange views about future steps. He met with Assistant Secretary of State James A. Kelly on Thursday and was scheduled to meet Secretary of State Colin L. Powell today. Wang made no comment on the suspension of the reactor project or the North Korean response.
The $4.6-billion reactor project that is to be suspended was the centerpiece of a now nearly moribund 1994 agreement under which the international community promised North Korea energy assistance in return for a freeze of its nuclear program.
More than $1.4 billion has been invested in the project, which is located on a remote, wind-swept cliff on North Korea's east coast near the village of Kumho.
The Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization, or KEDO, as the international consortium is known, has partially completed construction of the cylindrical container building of the first reactor. It has built 2,000 modern apartments for workers, restaurants, gymnasiums, tennis courts and an indoor swimming pool. There are also about 90 pieces of heavy construction equipment and about 100 cars.
North Korea said in Thursday's statement that it would not permit the consortium to "take out all the equipment, facilities, materials and technical documents ... until this issue is settled."
It made no mention of the project's employees -- numbering about 800, most of them South Korean or Uzbek.
South Korean officials on Tuesday dismissed the threat as a "negotiating tactic" by the North. There was no official reaction from KEDO.
The international consortium's board members -- representatives of the United States, South Korea, Japan and the European Union -- decided at meetings Monday and Tuesday in New York to suspend construction for one year.
A U.S. official said the United States had by no means pressured the other members into agreeing to the suspension, since several of the partners, including the Japanese, were concerned about construction costs that are running about $30 million per month.
"The 'burn rate' [for spending money] for the South Koreans is $1 million a day; for the Japanese, it's approximately $500,000 a day," the official said.
The official noted that the KEDO contract, which North Korea has signed, specifically authorizes a one-year suspension of the agreement. Thus, North Korean claims that the consortium is in breach of contract are unfounded, the official said.
Demick reported from Seoul and Efron from Washington.