N. Korea Says It Is Making Nuclear Bombs

By SANG-HUN CHOE, Associated Press Writer

SEOUL, South Korea – North Korea said Thursday it is using plutonium extracted from spent nuclear fuel rods to make atomic weapons, a move that could escalate tensions on the Korean peninsula and raise the stakes in Pyongyang’s standoff with the United States.

North Korea has said before that it completed reprocessing its pool of 8,000 spent rods, but Thursday marked the first claim that it is using plutonium yielded from the rods to make nuclear weapons. U.S. and South Korean officials have been skeptical that the rods have been reprocessed.

The claim came amid increasing concern by U.S. intelligence analysts that North Korea might have three, four or even six nuclear weapons instead of the one or two the CIA now estimates.

“The (North) successfully finished the reprocessing of some 8,000 spent fuel rods,” a spokesman from the communist nation’s Foreign Ministry said in a statement carried by its official news agency, KCNA. The spokesman was unidentified.

Accusing the United States of taking a “hostile policy” toward the North, the statement said North Korea “made a switchover in the use of plutonium churned out by reprocessing spent fuel rods in the direction (of) increasing its nuclear deterrent force.”

When reprocessed with chemicals, the 8,000 rods can yield enough plutonium for North Korea to make five or six more nuclear weapons, according to experts.

In Washington, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said the United States had not confirmed North Korea’s claim, and said “they’ve made that statement before.”

“There’s no legitimate use for plutonium harvested during these procedures,” McClellan said. “It would be a clear indication that they are intent on enlarging their nuclear arsenal, despite the call from international community for North Korea to change its behavior.

“We’ve been talking about these issues in the six-party talks, and North Korea has received the message from all these nations that they need to end the nuclear weapons program in a verifiable and irreversible way, once and for all.”

A senior Seoul official, speaking to South Korean reporters on condition of anonymity, said Thursday that his government was investigating the latest claim. Later, South Korea issued a statement expressing concern about the development.

“This latest North Korean statement could hurt efforts to resolve the nuclear problem peacefully, hurt development of South-North Korean relations and damage the atmosphere of dialogue,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Shin Bong-kil said in the statement.

The existence of more than one weapon could mean that the isolated, Stalinist regime might part with one bomb, either in a test or by selling it, although a senior official and the main communist newspaper, Rodong Sinmun, said North Korea has pledged not to export its nuclear capability.

Vice Foreign Minister Choe Su Hon said the North is expanding its “nuclear deterrence” but wouldn’t say how many weapons it has, China’s official Xinhua News Agency reported Thursday.

“We (have) no intention of transferring any means of that nuclear deterrence to other countries,” Choe was quoted as telling reporters in New York, where he was attending the U.N. General Assembly.

North Korea also said Thursday that when necessary, it will reprocess more spent fuel rods to be produced from the small reactor in its main nuclear complex in Yongbyon, 50 miles north of Pyongyang.

North Korea says it restarted its frozen 5-megawatt reactor at Yongbyon after kicking out U.N. nuclear inspectors and quitting the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in January. Experts say it would take a year of operation before the reactor could produce enough to make a new weapon.

Pyongyang tends to escalate its harsh rhetoric in attempts analysts say are aimed at extracting concessions in crucial negotiations.

Last month, several U.S. government officials told The Associated Press on condition of anonymity that intelligence analysts are debating the extent of North Korea’s nuclear capability.

Among the issues is whether the North has refined its nuclear weapon designs so it can use less plutonium to make a working weapon. Some analysts presume the North Koreans have made steady advances and thus are able to use their existing stockpile of weapons-grade plutonium more efficiently, the officials said.

The CIA has not reached that conclusion, however, and is sticking with its unclassified estimate of one or two weapons, the officials said. Other U.S. estimates put the number at three or four; still others are floating five or six weapons as a possibility.

The United States and its allies are trying to persuade North Korea to give up its nuclear programs. Pyongyang says it will do so only if the United States signs a nonaggression treaty, provides economic aid and opens diplomatic ties.

The nuclear dispute flared last October when U.S. officials said North Korea admitted running a secret nuclear weapons program in violation of international agreements.

The United States and its allies suspended oil shipments to the North. North Korea in turn expelled U.N. nuclear inspectors, withdrew from the global nuclear arms-control treaty and said it was reactivating its main nuclear complex, frozen since 1994.

International talks to defuse the crisis have failed, and Seoul officials said North Korea’s latest move was a “tactic to boost its negotiating power” when the talks resume.

Japan and China did not comment on the statement Thursday, but it drew expressions of concern from other Asian governments.

“Any steps that bring nearer the prospect of nuclear proliferation on the Korean peninsula would be a source of great concern to Indonesia,” Indonesian Foreign Ministry spokesman Marty Natalegawa said.

Philippine Foreign Affairs Undersecretary Franklin Ebdalin said it was unfortunate and would make the nuclear standoff “more difficult to resolve.”