North Korea Talks End Early amid Nuclear Weapons Claim

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:13 PM EDT

Pacific Rim Bureau ( - Three-way talks in Beijing over North Korea's nuclear program have ended a day earlier than scheduled amid reports that the North Korean representatives admitted for the first time their country has nuclear weapons.

The U.S. government has not publicly confirmed reports of the admission, based on statements by unnamed U.S. officials, contained in network and wire reports.

Secretary of State Colin Powell announced the talks had ended in an address to the Asia-Pacific Council in Washington.

He said "strong views" had been presented by the North Koreans, the Chinese and the U.S. delegates at the meetings.

Powell also warned Pyongyang against making "threats."

"The North Koreans should not leave this series of discussions...with the slightest impression that the United States and its partners and the nations in the region will be intimidated by bellicose statements or by threats or actions they think might get them more attention or might force us to make a concession that we would not otherwise make," he said.

"They would be very ill-advised to move in that direction."

Powell said the U.S. continued to look for ways to "eliminate" the threat posed by a North Korean nuclear program and ensure a better future for its people.

He said no options had been taken off the table - although President Bush remained convinced that a peaceful solution could be found.

In an interview with NBC late Thursday, Bush said the North Koreans had gone "back to the old blackmail game.

"One of our goals and objectives must be to strengthen the non-proliferation regime and get the whole world focused on proliferation of weapons of mass destruction or the materials for weapons of mass destruction," the president told Tom Brokaw.

"North Korea is making my case that we have got to come together [with other countries to strengthen non-proliferation efforts]," he said.

"This will give us the opportunity to say to the North Koreans that we are not going to be threatened."

The delegations in Beijing were led by Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian Affairs James Kelly and Li Gun, the deputy director-general of North Korea's American Affairs Bureau.

At a regular press briefing, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher declined to elaborate on the "strong views" referred to by Powell other than to say the delegates had been "quite frank."

Asked whether he would characterize the talks as "productive," Boucher said they had achieved their purpose. "We went out there to say what we had to say and to hear what they had to say."

He would not confirm the reported nuclear weapons admission but did say: "The idea that they might have nuclear weapons is certainly no great surprise to any of us. We have been saying that for years."
In annual reports to Congress on attempts by countries to acquire non-conventional weapons, the CIA has for several years now said North Korea is believed to have already produced "one or two" nuclear weapons.

Experts believe those were made using plutonium extracted in 1989, before a 1994 bilateral accord called the Agreed Framework mothballed North Korea's nuclear reactors and spent-fuel rod reprocessing plant and placed them under U.N. monitoring.

Although the reactor was restarted early this year - Pyongyang says for peaceful, power-generation purposes "at this stage" - the U.S. says it has no evidence that work has begun on the 8,000 fuel rods stored at the reprocessing facility.

Once it does - if it does - the Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, Calif., estimates that the North Koreans could obtain enough plutonium for about another five nuclear bombs in about one month.

Production of additional plutonium from the newly restarted reactor could enable Pyongyang to build another bomb every year, it says.

Another think tank, the Washington-based Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, estimates that North Korea's separate uranium-enrichment program could provide enough weapons-grade material within two years for another six bombs.

It is that uranium-based program, begun in violation of the Agreed Framework, that Kelly confronted the North Koreans about this past October in a meeting that triggered the ongoing standoff.

With the early conclusion of the talks in Beijing, Kelly is expected to leave China Friday and brief senior officials in Seoul and Tokyo while traveling home.

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow