Trying to end months of speculation about whether it really has the bomb, North Korea said Saturday that it had displayed its “nuclear deterrent” for an unofficial U.S. delegation that toured its secretive Yongbyon complex.
Members of the private American group confirmed that North Korea had allowed them into the facility that is the heart of the nation’s nuclear program, but said they needed time to analyze and report on what they had seen.
"[The North Korean] intention was to show us their status. They wouldn’t do that unless they wanted us to come up with certain conclusions,” Charles L. “Jack” Pritchard, a former State Department official, said Saturday night in a telephone interview from Beijing. “We had enough time for what we wanted to see. We were satisfied.”
The group’s senior scientist, Siegfried S. Hecker, a former director of Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, will report in detail to the U.S. government and later to the public about the facility, Pritchard said.
“We had a good visit,” said Frank Januzzi, another member of the delegation and an aide to Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Januzzi said they also discussed with the North Koreans issues that included the nuclear facilities, human rights and economic reforms.
The delegation spent a full day Friday at Yongbyon, a compound about 60 miles north of Pyongyang, the capital, that is considered the Los Alamos of North Korea. The visit to the Yongbyon complex is the first by outsiders since December 2002, when North Korea expelled U.N. arms inspectors. It comes after a year of intense speculation among intelligence agencies about whether North Korea, one of the world’s poorest and most authoritarian countries, has in fact produced a nuclear bomb.
In contrast to other countries that try to conceal their nuclear programs, North Korea has been boasting about it in an apparent effort to gain leverage with the United States to win economic aid and political concessions.
“The United States compelled [North Korea] to build a nuclear deterrent. We showed this [to the delegation],” the official Korean Central News Agency quoted a spokesman for the North Korean Foreign Ministry as saying.
“The permission given ... to visit the facility was aimed to give Americans an opportunity to confirm the reality by themselves and ensure transparency, as speculative reports and ambiguous information about nuclear activities are throwing hurdles in the way of settling the pending nuclear issue,” the report continued.
The visit was criticized by some as interference with the Bush administration’s policy of eschewing direct contacts with North Korea in favor of multilateral negotiations. But the multilateral process, which involves six countries, has been moving with excruciating slowness.
The CIA believes that North Korea produced several crude nuclear weapons before 1994, when its nuclear program was frozen under a treaty with the United States. Those weapons are not believed to be stored at Yongbyon, and it is unclear whether the Americans saw or received any information about them. More likely, nuclear analysts said, the tour included facilities at Yongbyon used for the storage and reprocessing of fuel rods from North Korea’s five-megawatt nuclear reactor.
Last year, after the expulsion of the arms inspectors, North Korea is said to have removed 8,000 spent fuel rods from a cooling pond at Yongbyon and started the process of extracting weapons-grade plutonium.
Those fuel rods are believed to contain enough plutonium to build about six nuclear bombs.
Times staff writer Mark Magnier in Beijing contributed to this report.