WASHINGTON – North Korea (search)'s lead official at nuclear weapons talks in China told a U.S. envoy that his country has nuclear weapons and may test, export or use them depending on U.S. actions, a senior American official said Thursday.
The comment was made by North Korean delegate Ri Gun to Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly (search) during a social gathering Wednesday following formal discussions on the North's nuclear weapons program, said the senior U.S. official, speaking only on condition of anonymity.
Kelly did not respond to Ri's comment, said the official.
According to the official, Ri said during the plenary session earlier that North Korea has reprocessed all 8,000 spent nuclear fuel rods in its possession.
If true, that would put North Korea much closer to building six to eight additional weapons beyond the one or two it is believed to have at present.
An administration official said Thursday night it is doubtful the North Koreans have reprocessed or made significant progress in reprocessing. Large-scale reprocessing probably would be detectable via satellite photos, the official said.
Last Friday, North Korea said that after initial preparations, it was "at the point" of reprocessing, a statement apparently designed to increase its leverage heading into this week's talks.
In South Korea, Ko Yoo-hwan, a North Korea expert at Seoul's Dongkuk University, said that if the North "admitted that it was armed with nuclear weapons, it means it is using its last card. It also means it's going for its last, big deal with the United States."
He added that the United States should note Pyongyang's position that it will give up its nuclear programs if Washington guarantees regime's safety.
Park June-young, of Seoul's Ewha Woman's University, said: "There is an element of bluffing in what North Korea says. When North Korea is negotiating, it goes to the limits and tests the counterpart before making a dramatic turn around."
The comments by Ri, as reported by the administration official, suggest that North Korea is not taking seriously the U.S. goal of a "verifiable and irreversible" elimination of the North's nuclear weapons program.
The talks this week in Beijing, with China serving as a partner, were designed to address international concern over the program.
The State Department refused on Thursday to characterize the talks.
Secretary of State Colin Powell said any attempts by the North Korean government to intimidate the United States would fail. President Bush said the talks give the United States "an opportunity to say to the North Koreans, `We are not going to be threatened."'
Bush, in an interview with NBC anchor Tom Brokaw, said, "See, they're back to the old blackmail game." He said the world needs to focus on the spread of weapons of mass destruction and the materials used to make them.
A U.S. official said there were no indications that a nuclear test by North Korea was imminent but acknowledged that preparations for an underground test could be concealed. Another official said the North Koreans never used the word "test" in the discussions.
One positive note during the talks for the United States was a statement by China on Wednesday, during a closed-door plenary session, in support of a denuclearized Korean peninsula. The Chinese also reminded the North Koreans that they had promised South Korea in 1992 that they would not develop nuclear weapons.
U.S. officials considered the comments by the Chinese to be significant because China has been a friend of North Korea and an important source of food and energy.
After three-way talks on Wednesday, Thursday's discussions were limited to a one-on-one U.S.-China meeting and a one-on-one China-North Korea encounter.
On Friday, the U.S. and North Korean delegations met separately with China's foreign minister before holding a brief, informal three-way meeting, according to the U.S. Embassy in Beijing.
Powell, in an appearance before the U.S.-Asia Pacific Council, said the North Koreans "presented their point of view -- strongly," as did the Chinese and the Americans.
North Korea did not seem to view the talks as a reason to tone down belligerent rhetoric.
"The situation on the Korean Peninsula is so tense that a war may break out any moment due to the U.S. moves," the North's KCNA news agency said.
The Bush administration has said a diplomatic solution to the North Korea problem was within reach. It has hoped to work out a bargain whereby North Korea would agree to eliminate its weapons program in exchange for substantial assistance to help improve its stricken economy.
Powell said the North Koreans should not leave Beijing "with the slightest impression" that they might be able "to force us to make a concession that we would not otherwise make."
Ri is described as an engaging diplomat who speaks good English. Kelly's instructions were to not respond to Ri's presentation nor to have any discussions with him.
The senior administration official said Chinese officials encouraged Kelly to meet with Ri. He added that national security adviser Condoleezza Rice vetoed that suggestion.