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Friday, October 06, 2006

North Korea Can Have Nuclear Weapons or a Future, U.S. Says

By Jon Fox, Global Security Newswire

WASHINGTON — Following North Korea’s threat to conduct a nuclear test, the United States sent a message of “deep concern” to North Korean diplomats in New York, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Christopher Hill said yesterday (see GSN, Oct. 3).

In forceful yet vague terms, the lead U.S. envoy to stalled six-party talks on the North Korean nuclear crisis suggested the repercussions of a nuclear detonation could be dire for Pyongyang.

North Korea “can have a future, or it can have these weapons,” Hill said at Johns Hopkins University’s newly created U.S.-Korea Institute. “It cannot have both.”

He said Pyongyang’s announcement Tuesday that it planned to conduct a nuclear test set off a cascade of high-level discussions in Washington about possible responses. Hill carefully avoided specifics of policy options being discussed.

Hill said the message sent to North Korea expressed the U.S. view of “what such a test would mean.” There has not yet been a response, he said.

A test would invite nuclear proliferation, and “we would have no choice but to act resolutely,” he said. “I think the D.P.R.K. will realize some time in the future that they had a really bad day when they made that choice.” The United States “will not live with a nuclear North Korea,” Hill said.

Pyongyang in 2002 expelled International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors, then announced its withdrawal from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in 2003. In the past few years, North Korean officials have repeatedly claimed they have a nuclear weapon capability, but they have never tested a device (see related GSN story, today).

Intelligence estimates on the amount of weapon-grade plutonium in North Korea vary, but some suggest there might be enough for as many as eight bombs. Pyongyang said it has been forced to plan a demonstration of its weapons program by both sanctions and the “extreme threat” of nuclear war posed by the United States.

Hill called any test a “highly provocative act,” and said the international community “cannot be indifferent to that.” There is a need to “act swiftly and speak clearly with one voice and including through the U.N. Security Council,” he said.

He dismissed the notion that U.S. Treasury Department actions against an international bank in Macau over alleged money laundering and counterfeiting by North Korea are keeping Pyongyang from the six-party talks. The U.S.-led crackdown has resulted in $24 million in North Korean assets being frozen for more than a year.

“It’s hard for me to believe that this question is hung up on the question of whether they will see their $24 million in the Macau bank,” Hill said. “I think the problem is North Korea lacks the will to fulfill this obligation to do away with these nuclear programs.”

If that is the sticking point, however, he said the United States is willing to discuss the financial actions.

The United States maintains committed to the September 2005 agreement signed by the six negotiating nations, in which Pyongyang in principle agreed to eliminate its nuclear weapons program (see GSN, Sept. 19, 2005).

U.S. Ambassador to South Korea Alexander Vershbow said last month that Hill would be open to a bilateral meeting with his North Korean counterpart if Pyongyang commits to return to the six-party talks. Clarifying that statement, Hill said the United States would engage in two-way negotiations only within the context of a six-party framework.

“By that I mean we cannot have a situation where North Korea is allowed to take apart these talks and begin a bilateral process with the U.S.,” he said. “We are no longer in a situation where … South Korean diplomats have to wait at the airport for American diplomats to come back and tell them what is going on.”

Given the small size and populous nature of North Korea, Hill said the ecological problems associated even with an underground test of a nuclear weapon could be severe. “It’s frankly rather unthinkable.”

Those words echoed statements by a high-ranking North Korean official reported last week by Selig Harrison, a senior analyst with the Center for International Policy. Harrison, during a trip North Korea last month, met with military official Ri Chan Bok, who dismissed the possibility of a test (see GSN, Sept. 29).

“We are a very small country and we can’t have a nuclear test above ground like you big countries. You have Nevada. Russia has lots of space. If we have an underground test it could have radioactive leakage,” Harrison recounted Ri as saying. “These rumors are spread by U.S. agencies to smear us. I have never heard indications of a nuclear test in our government or armed force.”
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