North Korea declared on Thursday for the first time it possessed nuclear weapons and pulled out indefinitely from six-party talks on its atomic ambitions, saying it needed a defense against a hostile United States.
The announcement sent out shockwaves, coming when some of the world’s largest military powers have been trying to coax the reclusive communist North to return to the stalled disarmament talks and posing a challenge to President Bush.
“We … have manufactured nukes to cope with the Bush administration’s evermore undisguised policy to isolate and stifle the DPRK,” the Foreign Ministry said in a statement carried by the official Korean Central News Agency.
DPRK is short for the North’s official name, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
The statement marks the first time the North has publicly said it has nuclear weapons and is Pyongyang’s first response to resuming six-party talks since Bush said in his inauguration speech on Jan. 20 that he was committed to ending tyranny.
While Bush did not specify countries, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has singled out North Korea as one of six tyrannical regimes.
“Nuclear weapons will remain (a) nuclear deterrent for self-defense under any circumstances,” the ministry said.
Top officials from Seoul, Washington and Tokyo responded swiftly to the North’s move to raise the stakes in a crisis that has engulfed North Asia for more than two years, urging it to abandon its nuclear programs.
“There is really no reason for this but we’ll examine where we’ll go next,” Rice said in an interview with RTL television during a visit to Luxembourg, which holds the EU presidency.
“The North Koreans should reassess this and try to end their own isolation,” she said, adding that Washington would consult its allies.
Washington recently stepped up efforts to revive the six-party talks, sending an envoy to the region last week with letters for Chinese President Hu Jintao, South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun and Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.
The United States, China, South Korea, Japan and Russia have held three rounds of talks with North Korea since August 2003 and have been trying to coax Pyongyang back to the negotiations.
However, the Pyongyang Foreign Ministry tirade, announcing the indefinite suspension of talks, referred directly to U.S. hostile policy as the North’s reason for boosting its defenses.
“The Bush administration termed the DPRK, its dialogue partner, an outpost of tyranny,” the ministry said, adding that the U.S. aim was to stifle the North and achieve regime change.
“This deprived the DPRK of any justification to participate in the six-party talks,” it said.
Before restarting the talks, North Korea had sought a conciliatory gesture from the United States with the inauguration of Bush for his second term, analysts said. Washington has said it believes the North has at least one or two nuclear weapons.
Pyongyang said it saw no compelling reason to return to the six-way talks amid bellicose signs from the Bush administration.
“We have wanted the six-party talks but we are compelled to suspend our participation in the talks for an indefinite period,” the Foreign Ministry said, adding that it would wait for conditions conducive to positive results.
The latest crisis over the North’s nuclear ambitions erupted in October 2002 when the United States said North Korea had acknowledged it had a secret program based on highly enriched uranium as well as a plutonium scheme that it had put on hold.
Pyongyang later denied having a uranium project.
North Korea may be trying to raise the stakes while U.S. attention is focused on Iran’s nuclear programs to obtain better terms in its own negotiations, analysts said.
“I believe North Korea hardened its stance because the Bush administration has eased its stance,” said Noriyuki Suzuki, chief analyst at the Tokyo-based Radiopress news agency, which specializes in monitoring events in North Korea.
“North Korea is trying to win more concessions from the United States by hardening its stance,” he said.
“But I think this approach will have the opposite effect to what was intended,” Suzuki said.
A senior South Korean official involved in the talks hinted that the North may be using brinksmanship to try and gain the upper hand in a delicate diplomatic situation.
“North Korea is using its typical harsh rhetoric, but it still makes it clear that this is not the end of the talks,” the official said.
South Korean Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon and his top nuclear negotiators left for Washington on Thursday for discussions on resuming the six-way talks. Ban has said the North was expected to return to the talks soon after Bush began his second term.
Diplomatic analysts had cited late February or early March as the possible timing for a fresh round of talks.
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