Pyongyang denies making nuclear programme admission
NORTH Korea denied yesterday ever admitting to United States officials it had a secret nuclear weapons programme. As Washington’s top envoy arrived in South Korea for talks, Pyongyang responded by threatening to unleash a "sea of fire" on the US.
James Kelly, the US assistant secretary of state, was to meet South Korea’s president-elect Roh Moo-hyun, who has called for diplomacy to ease the crisis with the North. Washington and its allies are intensifying efforts to find a way out of the escalating confrontation with North Korea.
Mr Kelly is to travel this week to China, and later to Singapore, Indonesia and Japan. But each US move appears to meet with ever more belligerent language from Pyongyang.
The new denial from North Korea touches on one of the flash points of the current stand-off.
In October, the US announced the North had admitted running a secret nuclear programme to Mr Kelly’s team in Pyongyang. The admission had stunned US officials, who had presented new evidence of secret weapons work but expected a denial.
The North Korean nuclear programme appeared to violate a 1994 agreement with the Clinton administration, which promised energy supplies if the North froze operations at suspect nuclear installations. Washington and its allies retaliated in December by halting oil shipments.
"The claim that we admitted developing nuclear weapons is an invention fabricated by the US with sinister intentions," the North’s official Rodong Sinmun newspaper said.
It blamed the US for the current crisis and warned: "If the US evades its responsibility and challenges us, we’ll turn the citadel of imperialists into a sea of fire."
When negotiators were hammering out the 1994 accord - over similar concerns about North Korea’s nuclear intentions - Pyongyang warned that it would turn the South Korean capital of Seoul into a "sea of fire".
The US believes North Korea has one or two nuclear weapons and could make several more within six months, if it reactivates a plutonium reprocessing plant.
Over the weekend, North Korea sent sharply mixed messages.
They vowed the North would seek "revenge with blood" toward any country that violates its sovereignty, promising to "smash US nuclear maniacs" in a "holy war".
The North also upped the stakes by threatening to resume long-range missile tests if the situation with the US didn’t improve.
The UN Security Council could soon consider whether to impose further economic and political sanctions on Pyongyang - which has already threatened to treat sanctions as an "act of war".
North Korea’s top diplomats at the United Nations, however, have sent a very different message. In New Mexico they met the governor Bill Richardson, a former US ambassador to the UN.
Mr Richardson, a veteran of negotiations with the North Koreans, said the deputy UN ambassador, Han Song Ryol, assured him the North wanted improved ties with the US and had no plans to build a bomb.
"He told me that ... North Korea would discuss America’s concerns over verifying its nuclear programme. I think that’s positive," Mr Richardson said after the meetings.
Talks could start soon, said Mr Richardson, who appears to be emerging as the North Koreans’ favoured intermediary, even though he served in the Clinton administration.
"They don’t negotiate like we do. They don’t have our same mentality. They believe in order to get something they have to lay out additional cards, step up the rhetoric, be more belligerent."
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