September 29, 2004 3:00 am

N Korea says it 'weaponised' spent plutonium

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North Korea claims it has "weaponised" all of its spent plutonium rods because the US's hostile policies towards Pyongyang leave it no choice but to develop a "nuclear deterrent".

After making the claims to the United Nations general assembly in New York on Monday, Choe Su-hon, North Korea's deputy foreign minister, said: "We have made clear that we have already reprocessed 8,000 wasted fuel rods and transformed them into arms."

Seoul played down the claim but it will give impetus to resuming the six-party talks aimed at halting Pyongyang's nuclear ambition.

The US has thought for some years that North Korea had one or two plutonium-based nuclear weapons and the capacity to make more. If it reprocessed all 8,000 rods it could make up to eight nuclear bombs.

But asked to clarify whether the fuel had been turned into actual weapons, Mr Choe said only that it had been "weaponised". He told the UN that the danger of war on the peninsula was "snowballing" because of the hardline US stance, leaving his country "with no other option but to possess a nuclear deterrent".

Coming amid increasingly shrill threats from a regime notorious for rhetorical posturing, it is unclear whether these claims represent significant developments in North Korean policy.

Seoul said the claims repeated earlier rhetoric. "Considering the North's technology and the actual time it takes to reprocess [spent nuclear fuel rods], it is hard to believe the North has finished reprocessing all the fuel rods," a government official told the Yonhap news agency.

The US administration of President George W. Bush has consistently talked down the threat posed by North Korea's nuclear activities, refusing to use the word "crisis" while it has been focused on Iraq. Democrats have criticised the long delays in engaging North Korea on the issue, and administration hardliners are frustrated at what they see as too limp a response. Asked to comment, a State Department official said North Korea had made a variety of claims on what it had done with the 8,000 spent fuel rods from the Yongbyon reactor, but that "nobody knows for certain" what has happened to them.

The official urged Pyongyang to fulfil its commitment to attend another round of six-party talks and said the US was ready to resume negotiations.

However, the process has been complicated by recent revelations that South Korea has enriched a small amount of uranium and separated plutonium in secret experiments during the past 22 years.

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