SEOUL, South Korea – North Korea (search) told American lawmakers it already has nuclear weapons and intends to build more, a senior U.S. congressman said Monday after returning from a trip to the communist state.
Rep. Curt Weldon (search), who led a congressional delegation that visited Pyongyang for three days ending Sunday, said North Korean officials also told them they had almost completed reprocessing 8,000 spent fuel rods.
"They admitted to having nuclear capability and weapons at this moment," Weldon said at a news conference in Seoul (search). "They admitted to an effort to expand their nuclear production program."
U.S. officials have said North Korea claimed at talks in April in Beijing that it already had nuclear weapons, but would give up its nuclear programs in return for economic aid and security guarantees.
On Monday, Weldon, R-Pa., said North Korean officials repeated that claim and even said they planned to produce more nuclear weapons despite pressure from the United States and its allies.
"They admitted to having just about completed the reprocessing of 8,000 rods," said Weldon, who is the No. 2 member of the U.S. House Armed Services Committee.
U.S. experts say the rods' reprocessing could give North Korea several more nuclear bombs within months.
During their three-day trip to Pyongyang, Weldon's delegation met North Korean Foreign Minister Paek Nam Sun, Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye Gwan and Choe Thae Bok, chairman of North Korea's legislature, the Supreme People's Assembly.
Although they were not traveling as envoys of President Bush, they were first American officials to visit since the nuclear standoff began in October. They flew to Seoul on Sunday to brief South Korean officials on their trip.
North Korea said it was developing its nuclear weapons as "a response to what they saw happened in Iraq, with the U.S. removing Saddam Hussein from power," Weldon said.
North Korea has repeatedly accused Washington of planning to invade. Bush says he prefers a diplomatic solution, but has not ruled out a military option.
In Seoul, South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun said his government has no "clear proof" to conclude North Korea has nuclear weapons.
"North Korea has told important people of the United States that it has developed nukes and reprocessed spent fuel rods. But North Korea has not confirmed that to anyone else," Roh said. "Thus, we must make a very careful judgment on whether we will conclude it has nuclear weapons or not, based on those words only."
U.S. and South Korean officials said North Korea may be bluffing in an attempt to increase its leverage in talks with the United States over its suspected nuclear weapons programs.
Weldon said his delegation "comes away convinced" that the nuclear standoff can be resolved in a peaceful manner.
North Korea said the visit "helped both sides know better each other and they shared the view that core of the DPRK-U.S. relations is to avert confrontation and war and peacefully co-exist on an equal basis." DPRK stands for Democratic People's Republic of Korea, the North's official name.
"They were of the same view that it is necessary to seek a negotiated settlement of the nuclear issue and expressed their stand that it is necessary to continue seeking and discussing ways of settling it," a North Korean foreign ministry spokesman was quoted as saying by state-run KCNA news agency.
The nuclear crisis flared last October when U.S. officials said North Korea admitted running a secret nuclear weapons program in violation of a 1994 accord.
Other members of Weldon's delegation are Reps. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., Jeff Miller, R-Fla. and Solomon Ortiz, D-Texas.