SEOUL (Reuters) - The United States and its allies on Monday accused North Korea of being a danger to the region after it showed off its latest advances in uranium enrichment, but Washington said it was still open to talks.
South Korean Defence Minister Kim Tae-young raised the temperature when he hinted at the possibility of redeploying U.S. tactical nuclear weapons in response, but his department quickly attempted to tone down his comment.
The reported sighting of more than 1,000 centrifuges at its main nuclear complex appears to confirm the impoverished North, which has a plutonium-based atomic program, is working to create a second source of arms-grade nuclear material.
It comes as Pyongyang is pressing regional powers to resume talks on its atomic weapons program — about the only real leverage it has with the outside world.
“It is the latest in a series of provocative moves by the DPRK ... it is a very difficult problem we have been struggling to deal with for 20 years,” U.S. envoy Stephen Bosworth told reporters in Seoul, referring to the North by its acronym.
“This is not a crisis. We are not surprised,” said Bosworth, who is on the first leg of a tour of east Asia. “My crystal ball is foggy, but I would never declare any process dead,” he said when asked about the fate of regional six-party talks. “We have hope that we will be able to resuscitate (them).”
The North’s reported nuclear advances, including work on a light-water reactor, come nearly two months after Kim Jong-il started the transition of power to his youngest son, Kim Jong-un. Analysts say he wants to use nuclear muscle to boost his son’s credentials with the military.
Washington is particularly worried by the threat of North Korea — whose ravaged economy has long relied heavily on arms exports — selling nuclear weapons material to other states. It has conducted two nuclear tests to date and is believed to have enough fissile material to make between six and 12 bombs.
The latest flurry over Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions follows comments over the weekend by Siegfried Hecker of Stanford University that he had been shown more than 1,000 centrifuges during a tour of the Yongbyon nuclear complex this month. North Korea said they were operational.
It is impossible to verify the North’s claims, which it first announced last year. International inspectors were expelled from the country last year, but Washington has said since 2002 that it suspected Pyongyang had such a program.
The North Koreans told Hecker they had 2,000 centrifuges in operation, but the U.S. team that visited the country was unable to verify that they were working. Hecker said North Korea described the program as aiming to generate electricity.
The North has said it wants to resume multilateral talks, but Washington and Seoul have said they will only consider a return to the negotiating table when Pyongyang shows it is sincere about denuclearization.
By showing its nuclear hand, analysts say North Korea is seeking to gain leverage in any aid-for-disarmament negotiations in stalled six-way talks with regional powers China, Japan, South Korea, Russia and the United States.
Despite leaving the door open to talks, the U.S. State Department made clear it did not want to revert to a pattern of giving North Korea economic or diplomatic benefits only to see Pyongyang renege on its promises.
“We will not be drawn into rewarding North Korea for bad behaviour,” department spokesman P.J. Crowley told reporters in Washington. “They frequently anticipate doing something outrageous or provocative and forcing us to jump through hoops as a result. We’re not going to buy into this cycle.”
Earlier, the White House said U.S. representatives were in the region to discuss North Korea with allies and coordinate a response.
Some analysts believe the United States may have little choice but to walk down such a path, suggesting that any new talks might aim less at persuading the North to eliminate its nuclear programs entirely and more at constraining them.
“I do think that they will find a way to go back into talks in the next five or six months,” said Jack Pritchard, a former State Department official responsible for dealings with North Korea who visited the country earlier this month.
“There is no indication that the North Koreans are ready, willing or able to talk seriously about denuclearization at this point,” he added, saying Kim Jong-il’s effort to build the credibility of his son and heir apparent, Kim Jong-un, meant “they can’t negotiate away what little leverage they have.”
South Korean government officials said the latest revelations, if true, posed “a very serious problem,” adding they were in keeping with Pyongyang’s pattern of behaviour.
Asked by a lawmaker if the government was willing to consider reintroducing U.S. tactical nuclear weapons, Defence Minister Kim told a parliament committee that the government “will review what you said.”
He that such an option could be discussed next month at a newly created joint military committee to enhance deterrence against the North’s nuclear programs.
The defence ministry moved to tone down the significance of his remarks saying that they were “made in the context that all possible options could be reviewed.”
A senior ministry official told the Yonhap news agency that Seoul has never considered redeploying U.S. nuclear weapons, believed to have been removed from the South in the 1990s, as the country remains under Washington’s nuclear umbrella.
Crowley, the U.S. State Department spokesman said he was not aware of any change in U.S. policy on the matter.
Japan said it could not accept the North’s nuclear advances and that it would work with its allies to address the issue.
“North Korea’s nuclear arms development can never be tolerated,” Prime Minister Naoto Kan told reporters. “We would like to respond to the situation while cooperating firmly with the United States and other countries.”
Crowley said the United States has long relied on China to try to influence North Korea and would expect Beijing to send “direct, clear, stern messages to Pyongyang.”
Bosworth, who arrived in Tokyo on Monday, is due on Tuesday to visit China, which has yet to comment on the fresh reports.
Additional reporting by Danbee Moon in Seoul, Chris Buckley in Beijing, Phil Stewart and Arshad Mohammed in Washington, David Alexander in Santa Cruz, Yoko Kubota; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani and Stacey Joyce