North Korea said Tuesday it will hold onto its nuclear arsenal until it is satisfied the U.S. is not hiding atomic weapons in South Korea and Washington establishes diplomatic relations with the regime.
The North has long accused Washington of stationing nuclear weapons on the Korean peninsula for a possible attack on the communist nation. Both the South and the U.S. deny having nuclear weapons in South Korea.
Regional powers have been trying for years to rid North Korea of its nuclear program, but negotiations have recently stalled. The Foreign Ministry indicated it would consider giving up its nuclear weapons if the U.S. threat is removed and diplomatic relations between the two nations are established.
"We won't need atomic weapons when U.S. nuclear threats are removed, and the U.S. nuclear umbrella over South Korea is gone," the statement said.
The statement comes a week before President-elect Barack Obama's inauguration amid signs that the regime wants good relations with the next U.S. administration. Washington does not have diplomatic ties with the North, but Obama has said he would be willing to meet with leader Kim Jong Il if it helps resolve the nuclear standoff.
The two Koreas, with the South backed by U.S.-led international troops, fought a bitter war from 1950-53 that ended with a truce, not a peace treaty. The rivals technically remain at war and are divided by a heavily fortified border.
After testing a nuclear bomb in 2006, the North agreed to a six-nation pact promising aid in exchange for disarmament. However, the process has been stalled for months over how to verify Pyongyang's past nuclear activities, with the North rejecting Washington's proposed protocol.
The North reiterated its commitment Tuesday to a nuclear weapon-free Korean peninsula. But it said verification must take place at the last stage of the disarmament process — not the second of three phases as the U.S. wants.
"It is necessary to simultaneously verify the whole Korean peninsula," the ministry statement said, indicating that the nuclear talks may continue to be stalled.
The ministry statement came as South Korea prepared to send a team of nuclear experts to the North in Seoul's highest-level visit in nearly a year.
A six-member team of experts led by Seoul's No. 2 envoy to North Korea disarmament talks, Hwang Joon-kook, will examine unused fuel rods at the North's main reprocessing plant, South Korea's Foreign Ministry said.
North Korea has some 14,000 unused fuel rods, and Seoul has said it would consider buying them if they can be adapted for use in South Korea's power-generating nuclear reactors. The North also has some 8,000 spent fuel rods, which could be used to harvest weapons-grade plutonium for nuclear bombs if reprocessed.
Pyongyang agreed during international disarmament talks in December to export its unused fuel rods.