BEIJING (Reuters) - North Korea says it has “weaponised” enough plutonium for four to five nuclear weapons, a U.S. expert said on Saturday after talks in Pyongyang.
North Korea has made a series of demands as well as offers of cooperation over its nuclear programme as U.S. President-elect Barack Obama prepares to enter the White House.
The North’s leader Kim Jong-il appears to have given up handling many day-to-day tasks after suffering a stroke and this may explain the North’s hardening stance, Selig Harrison, a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, a policy institute in Washington D.C., said.
Harrison said senior North Korean officials had told him this week that 30.8 kg (68 pounds) of plutonium their government had listed as part of a preliminary disarmament agreement had been “weaponised” -- incorporated into warheards or other arms.
He said all the four senior Pyongyang officials he met, including Li Gun, the Foreign Ministry official in charge of dealings with Washington, said plutonium was now out of bounds of inspections intended to advance the now-stalled six-party disarmament talks.
“All of those I met said that North Korea has already weaponised the 30.8 kg of plutonium listed in its formal declaration and that the weapons cannot be inspected,” Harrison told a news conference in the Chinese capital after returning from five days in Pyongyang, his eleventh visit to the isolated North since 1972.
“That means North Korea has four or five nuclear weapons, depending on the grade of plutonium, the specific weapons design and desired explosive yield.”
The North Korean claims could not be verified, Harrison said, but they underscored a hardening of the state’s position even as it made offers of cooperation to Obama.
The Pyongyang officials were vague about what weaponisation meant, but it appeared most likely the plutonium would be fitted in missile warheads, Harrison said.
North Korea has delayed implementing a nuclear disarmament agreement struck at the six-party talks in Beijing, unwilling to accept verification rules demanded by the other countries in the talks and saying they have not abided by their energy aid vows.
“The prospects for the six-party talks, on the basis of my assessment, are very gloomy,” said Harrison.
The talks bring together North and South Korea, China, the United States, Japan and Russia. They intensified after the North held its first nuclear test explosion in October 2006.
“My view is that change in the leadership situation has strengthened the hardliners in the National Defense Commission, who are now in control of the nuclear disarmament negotiations more directly,” Harrison said.
But he said he was told North Korea wanted friendly relations with the United States.
He cited North Korea’s Foreign Minister Pak Ui-son as saying: “If the Obama administration takes its first steps correctly and makes a political decision to change its DPRK policy, the DPRK and the United States can become intimate friends.”
North Korea is formally called the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK).
Harrison said North Korea wanted construction of two unfinished light-water nuclear energy reactors in return for dismantling its Yongbyon nuclear plant.
It also says verification of its nuclear activities hinges on the United States and South Korea agreeing to open any nuclear weapons activities in the South to similar probing.
Harrison said the North’s Li Gun told him: “We are not in a position to say when we will abandon nuclear weapons. That depends on when we believe there is no U.S. nuclear threat.”
Besides Li and Pak, the officials he met were Vice President of the Supreme People’s Assembly Kim Yong-tae, spokesman of the National Defence Commission Ri Chan-bok.
North Korea’s state media also said earlier on Saturday Pyongyang would not give up its nuclear ambitions as long as a U.S. nuclear threat persisted.
North Korea’s army said on Saturday it would assume an “all-out confrontational posture” against the South and wipe out the conservative government in Seoul for refusing to cooperate.
U.S. President George W. Bush’s top Asia adviser had predicted earlier this week that North Korea might try to raise the stakes in order to increase its leverage after Obama takes office on Tuesday.
Last-ditch efforts by the Bush administration to win North Korea’s agreement on a system to verify its nuclear history and disarmament progress ended in stalemate at the end of 2008.
Harrison said some of North Korea’s demands may be bluster but it would be much harder for Pyongyang to step back from the claim that its plutonium is now housed in weapons.
“So they’ve raised the bar and said ‘We are a nuclear weapons state now. Deal with us on that basis’,” Harrison said.
Additional reporting by Paul Eckert, Arshad Mohammed, Jack Kim and Miyoung Kim
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