North Korea has "weaponized" its plutonium, producing four to five warheads, but hopes for better ties with Washington under President-elect Barack Obama, a U.S. researcher who visited the North said Saturday.
Officials say the weapons are off-limits to inspections and Pyongyang cannot say when it will give up nuclear arms, said Selig Harrison, director of the Washington-based Center for International Policy's Asia program. Harrison said he met this week with the North's nuclear envoy, Ri Gun, and other officials.
The officials said "North Korea is now a nuclear weapons state and will not commit itself now on when it will give it up as a result of denuclearization negotiations," Harrison told reporters in Beijing. He quoted Ri saying, "We are not in a position to say when we will abandon nuclear weapons."
Still, Foreign Minister Pak Ui Chun and others said the North wants better relations with Obama's government, according to Harrison. He said they want Obama to see that the North receives promised energy aid and to provide help to revive North Korean agriculture.
The officials repeatedly stressed, "North Korean wants friendly relations with the United States and hopes the Obama administration will take steps to reverse the Bush 'regime change' policy and will initiate new moves toward normalized relations," Harrison said.
Harrison said the North Korean stance toward Washington has hardened, possibly due to the rise of hard-liners following supreme leader Kim Jong Il's health problems. Harrison said sources in Pyongyang gave him information that appeared to confirm rumors that Kim suffered a stroke but has recovered, though he is not at work full-time.
Harrison said officials told him the North has "weaponized" 67.8 pounds of plutonium that it declared earlier as part of disarmament talks. He said when he asked what that meant, "the answer I got was, 'It means warheads."'
The officials gave no details, Harrison said. But he said that much plutonium would produce four to five weapons.