North Korea (search) says it has turned the plutonium (search) from 8,000 spent nuclear fuel rods into nuclear weapons (search) to serve as a deterrent against increasing U.S. nuclear threats and to prevent a nuclear war in northeast Asia.
Warning that the danger of war on the Korean peninsula "is snowballing," Vice Foreign Minister Choe Su Hon provided details Monday of the nuclear deterrent that he said North Korea has developed for self-defense.
He told the U.N. General Assembly's annual ministerial meeting that Pyongyang had "no other option but to possess a nuclear deterrent" because of U.S. policies that he claimed were designed to "eliminate" North Korea and make it "a target of preemptive nuclear strikes."
"Our deterrent is, in all its intents and purposes, the self-defensive means to cope with the ever increasing U.S. nuclear threats and further, prevent a nuclear war in northeast Asia," he told a news conference after his speech.
In Washington, a State Department official noted that Secretary of State Colin Powell has said repeatedly that the United States has no plans to attack the communist country.
But in his General Assembly speech and at the press conference with a small group of reporters, Choe blamed the United States for intensifying threats to attack the communist nation and destroying the basis for negotiations to resolve the dispute over Pyongyang's nuclear program.
Nonetheless, he said, North Korea is still ready to dismantle its nuclear program if Washington abandons its "hostile policy" and is prepared to coexist peacefully.
At the moment, however, he said "the ever intensifying U.S. hostile policy and the clandestine nuclear-related experiments recently revealed in South Korea are constituting big stumbling blocks" and make it impossible for North Korea to participate in the continuation of six-nation talks on its nuclear program.
North Korea said earlier this year that it had reprocessed the 8,000 spent nuclear fuel rods and was increasing its "nuclear deterrent" but did not provide any details.
Choe was asked at the news conference what was included in the nuclear deterrent.
"We have already made clear that we have already reprocessed 8,000 wasted fuel rods and transformed them into arms," he said, without elaborating on the kinds or numbers.
When asked if the fuel had been turned into actual weapons, not just weapons-grade material, Choe said, "We declared that we weaponized this."
South Korean Deputy Foreign Minister Lee Soo-hyuck said in late April that it was estimated that eight nuclear bombs could be made if all 8,000 spent nuclear fuel rods were reprocessed. Before the reprocessing, South Korea said it believed the North had enough nuclear material to build one or two nuclear bombs.
The State Department official said he hadn't seen Choe's comments but noted that the Bush administration has long believed that North Korea has at least one or two nuclear weapons. The official, asking not to be identified, said the North Koreans also have made a number of conflicting statements about how far along their weapons development programs have come.
The crisis erupted in 2002 when the United States accused North Korea of running a secret nuclear weapons program. The United States, the two Koreas, Japan, China and Russia since have held three rounds of talks on curbing the North's nuclear ambitions, but have produced no breakthroughs.
"If the six-party talks are to be resumed, the basis for the talks demolished by the United States should be properly set up and the truth of the secret nuclear experiments in South Korea clarified completely," Choe told the General Assembly.
South Korea disclosed recently that its scientists conducted a plutonium-based nuclear experiment more than 20 years ago and a uranium-enrichment experiment in 2000. It denied having any weapons ambitions, and an investigation by the International Atomic Energy Agency is under way.
Choe told the press conference that North Korea wants an explanation because Pyongyang believes it is impossible that such experiments took place "without U.S. technology and U.S. approval."
He also accused President George W. Bush's administration of being "dead set against" reconciliation between North and South Korea, and of adopting an "extremely undisguised ... hostile policy" toward the country after it came to power in early 2001.
"As it becomes clear that the U.S. has been pursuing the aim to stifle the DPRK by military means, so our determination to build up a powerful deterrent becomes resolute more and more," Choe said, using the initials of North Korea's official name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.
At the third round of six-party talks in June, the United States proposed that the North disclose all its nuclear activities, help to dismantle facilities and allow outside monitoring. Under the plan, some benefits would be withheld to ensure the North cooperates.
But North Korea said it would never scrap its nuclear programs first and wait to get rewarded later. Instead, it insisted on "reward for freeze."
Choe said a freeze would be "the first step toward eventual dismantlement of our nuclear program" — and that Pyongyang had intended "to include in the freeze no more manufacturing of nuclear weapons, and no test and transfer of them."
A freeze would be followed by "objective verification," he said.