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US Alleges North Korea Admits Nuclear Program

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U.S. alleges N. Korea admits nuclear program

Pyongyang reported to dismiss 1994 treaty


Oct. 17 — North Korea has acknowledged that it has a uranium-enrichment program, which U.S. officials believe would be used only to develop a nuclear bomb, the Bush administration said Wednesday night. U.S. sources told NBC News that Pyongyang reacted angrily to U.S. accusations about the program and declared an anti-nuclear agreement it signed eight years ago to be “nullified.”

THE DISCLOSURE, first reported Wednesday evening by Reuters and confirmed by NBC News, rapidly chilled U.S.-North Korean relations. The State Department announced that it was shelving plans to move forward with economic and political development help “in light of our concerns about the North’s nuclear weapons program.”

In a statement late Wednesday, the State Department claimed that North Korean officials “acknowledged” the uranium program’s existence after they were presented with “recently acquired information” signaling that the United States knew about it.

U.S. sources told NBC News, however, that North Korean officials did not directly confess to a secret nuclear program when confronted early this month by Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly, who was in Pyongyang for security talks. Rather, the sources said, the North Korean officials did not deny the accusation.

A knowledgeable source told NBC News on condition of anonymity that the Defense Intelligence Agency discovered the program within the last “couple of months.” Since then, U.S. intelligence has identified a “dozen worrisome sites” related to the program, the source said.

U.S. sources said the secret program consisted of a uranium enrichment program using gas centrifuges, the same technology that has been used to fuel covert nuclear weapons programs in other countries, such as Pakistan. Washington believes Iraq has been trying to acquire the same technology.


There was no comment Wednesday night from Pyongyang. But in a statement carried on the Web site of its KCNA news agency before the State Department announcement, the North Korean government denounced Kelly, saying he “behaved as if he were an ‘inspector’ during his visit to Pyongyang” on Oct. 3-5 and terming his demeanor “extremely high-handed and arrogant.”

A source told NBC News that the use of the term “inspector” appeared to be an attempt by North Korea to liken its situation to that of Iraq.

Officials said the Bush administration had not yet decided how to respond. The White House said it was consulting with members of Congress, while the State Department said it was sending Kelly and Undersecretary of State John Bolton to the region to confer with allies, with whom it had not yet worked out a coordinated response.

The State Department took a hard line, calling the nuclear program “a serious violation of North Korea’s commitments” under a variety of international agreements and canceling the planned development programs.

But while aides to South Korean President Kim Dae-jung agreed that the alleged uranium program was “grave” and “unacceptable,” they said they considered the disclosure to be a signal of Pyongyang’s “readiness to talk.”

Deputy Foreign Minister Lee Tae-sik said South Korea would go ahead with Cabinet-level talks beginning Saturday in Pyongyang. “All these issues should be resolved through dialogue and peacefully, and we will continue to strengthen cooperative consultations with the United States and Japan,” he said.

Likewise, Japan said it would proceed with talks on establishing diplomatic ties with North Korea later this month. “There will be no change to the normalization talks,” Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi told reporters.


The 1994 agreement with a coalition of countries, including the United States, addressed the processing of plutonium, not uranium, and ended a crisis that then-U.S. Defense Secretary William Perry said was within days of becoming a shooting war.

North Korea promised to give up its nuclear weapons program and promised to allow inspections to verify that it did not have the material to build such weapons. In return, the coalition is building a light-water nuclear reactor in North Korea.

It remained unclear why North Korea would acknowledge a uranium program, particularly now and to the Bush administration, which has labeled Pyongyang part of an “axis of evil.”

A U.S. official told NBC News on condition of anonymity that the uranium program, which allegedly began during the Clinton administration, could be used only to develop a nuclear bomb. Other sources said the United States was uncertain whether North Korea had managed to enrich uranium to weapons grade.

North Korea has been known to experiment with enriching uranium in the past, but not on the scale needed for nuclear weapons production. However, sources said Washington has been aware of North Korean attempts to reprocess plutonium using its Yungbin nuclear reactor near Pyongyang. North Korea is believed to have reprocessed enough plutonium for one or two nuclear weapons, the CIA said in January.

About 37,000 U.S. troops are stationed in South Korea as a deterrent against the North. The Koreas were divided after World War II and remained that way at the end of the inconclusive Korean War from 1950 to 1953. A truce, but not a peace agreement, was signed to end the fighting, but technically North and South Korea are still at war.

After months of tension with South Korea, the North resumed high-level talks in August that restarted stalled reconciliation efforts on the Korean peninsula, which is divided by the most heavily armed border in the world.

Most recently, Pyongyang admitted that it had kidnapped Japanese youngsters in the 1970s and 1980s and used them as spies. Some of those who survived were allowed to visit their families in Japan after several decades.

NBC’s Robert Windrem, Betsy Steuart and Javier Morgado; MSNBC.com’s Kari Huus and Alex Johnson; The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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