US says N.Korea atomic program more advanced
A key covert North Korean nuclear program may be more advanced than the United States had believed, US Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly said on Friday, citing a recent confession by a Pakistani scientist that he sold nuclear technology to Pyongyang.
"... the recent confession of Pakistan's A.Q. Khan suggests that if anything, the North Korean HEU (highly enriched uranium) program is of longer duration and more advanced than we had assessed," Kelly said.
Abdul Qadeer Khan, the father of Pakistan's nuclear arms program, said this month he had sold nuclear secrets to North Korea, Libya and Iran.
North Korea dismissed the confession as a lie cooked up by Washington to justify an invasion of the communist state.
"We are confident that our intelligence in this matter is well-founded," Kelly said in a speech two weeks before the start of a new round of six-party talks to resolve the North Korean nuclear crisis.
He did not elaborate on this charge in his prepared remarks at a conference hosted by the Korea Economic Institute and other groups and later refused to answer questions.
But he said Washington now believes Pyongyang is more wedded than ever to its nuclear ambitions.
"As we now see it, maintaining a nuclear arsenal apparently has become a core, not peripheral, element of North Korea's national defense strategy," he said.
This is likely to trigger reaction from administration critics who have complained that U.S. President George W. Bush delayed too long in launching serious negotiations, allowing Pyongyang to continue work on its various nuclear programs.
The current crisis was triggered in October 2002 when the United States confronted the North about a secret program for enriching uranium, which can produce fuel for nuclear bombs.
This was in addition to a separate program for producing plutonium, the other type of nuclear fuel, that was frozen under a 1994 US-North Korea accord but has since been resumed.
North Korea acknowledged the highly enriched uranium program during that October 2002 meeting, according to US officials, but now denies its existence.
Kelly said the change of heart resulted when the North realized the admission was "a major tactical error that was resulting in massive international criticism."
After months of maneuvering, talks on the crisis hosted by China and involving the United States, South Korea, Russia, Japan and the North, start in Beijing on Feb. 25.
Kelly reiterated Washington's insistence that Pyongyang end its nuclear programs.
"North Korea needs to make a strategic choice -- and make it clear to the world as Libya has done -- that it will abandon its nuclear weapons and programs in a complete, verifiable and irreversible manner," Kelly said.
Libya in recent weeks agreed to abandon its nuclear weapons program.
Kelly's speech was not without comments designed to encourage Pyongyang.
He said Libya's case proves the North can dismantle its nuclear programs "as a sovereign country" and gave assurances that this will not be a hard task once the North has made the fundamental decision to do so.
Kelly reiterated a US commitment to a diplomatic solution and said the negotiating team he leads at the Beijing talks will "listen carefully and respond to all positions."
"We and other the other parties realize that moving away from isolation and
estrangement toward openness and engagement will be a major undertaking and we
are willing to help ... There is a chance for redemption," he said.