Concerned about increasingly threatening statements from North Korea, the United States has asked China to emphasize to Pyongyang that a nuclear weapons test would be unacceptable, U.S. officials confirmed Friday.
The officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity, stressed that they have no new or conclusive evidence to indicate that North Korea is acting on threats to produce additional plutonium for nuclear warheads or to conduct a nuclear arms test.
Instead, the officials indicated that the U.S. delivered a message to the Chinese Foreign Ministry on Thursday asking that Beijing stress the need for the North Koreans to tone down their rhetoric and not act on any of their threats.
Spokesmen for the National Security Council and the State Department declined to comment on the U.S. message, citing policies against discussing private diplomatic communications or intelligence matters. They also refused to confirm what sources have described as unexplained activity spotted by American satellites monitoring suspected North Korean nuclear facilities.
“We’ve been concerned about recent provocative North Korean statements on their nuclear program and intentions and have shared those concerns with our partners in the six-party process,” said State Department spokesman Tom Casey.
He was referring to the stalled talks among the United States, China, Japan, North Korea, South Korea and Russia aimed at persuading Pyongyang to abandon its atomic aspirations.
“We continue to believe that such statements do nothing to bring this issue to a resolution,” Casey said. “On the contrary, they only further isolate North Korea.”
In recent weeks, officials in Pyongyang declared they could export nuclear weapons to terrorists if they chose to. They also have said they shut down a nuclear reactor at Yongbyon to remove the spent fuel to reprocess the plutonium and produce more nuclear weapons.
South Korean officials said they had no indication that North Korea was planning a nuclear test. But they said they too were concerned about the hardening of rhetoric and the activities at Yongbyon, North Korea’s main nuclear campus about 60 miles north of the capital.
Of particular concern to the U.S. have been statements by North Korean Vice Minister Kim Gye Gwan, who told visiting American scholar Selig S. Harrison this month that North Korea is not planning to transfer nuclear material to terrorists but could do so if “the United States drives us into a corner.”
“The United States should consider the danger that we could transfer nuclear weapons to terrorists, that we have the ability to do so,” Harrison quoted Kim as saying, according to the Kyodo News Service of Japan. “It is too late for them to prevent us from making nuclear weapons, but it is not too late to work out verifiable agreements to prevent any proliferation.”
Although U.S. officials believe that the Yongbyon reactor has stopped operating, they said they do not know whether North Koreans are performing maintenance, extracting plutonium or shut down the reactor for another purpose.
“We did see them shut down the reactor, but that’s different from preparing for a nuclear weapons test,” said L. Gordon Flake, a North Korea specialist who heads the Mansfield Center for Pacific Affairs in Washington.
A senior South Korean nuclear analyst believes that North Korea is planning a test. “There is no other particular reason to stop the reactor but for production of plutonium,” said Kim Tae Woo of the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses, a government-affiliated think tank.
But there has been no credible information or intelligence data suggesting that North Korea is preparing to conduct a nuclear arms test, despite the threats, Flake said.
In December 2002, North Korea pulled out of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and evicted United Nations arms inspectors. The following February it restarted the Yongbyon reactor, which had been mothballed under a treaty with the U.S.
Nuclear experts believe that North Korea already has enough plutonium for about five nuclear bombs. But because the country has never formally tested a nuclear device, it is not considered a nuclear power.
Pyongyang has refused to return to negotiations despite the urging of the other five participants.
U.S. officials have publicly brushed off Pyongyang’s rhetoric, suggesting that the threats are aimed at getting Washington’s attention.
“I do think the North Koreans have been, frankly, a little bit disappointed that people are not jumping up and down and running around with their hair on fire because [they] have been making these pronouncements,” Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told the Wall Street Journal, which first reported the new U.S. communications with China on its website Friday.
The Bush administration has insisted that negotiations with North Korea must take place within the framework of the six-party talks and has relied on China to persuade the North Koreans to return to the table.
Times staff writer Barbara Demick in Seoul contributed to this report.