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North Korea says plutonium "weaponized" and off-limits
Sun Jan 18, 2009 1:17pm EST
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By Chris Buckley
BEIJING (Reuters) - North Korea says it has "weaponized" enough plutonium for four to five nuclear weapons, a U.S. expert said on Saturday after talks in Pyongyang.
North Korea has made a series of demands as well as offers of cooperation over its nuclear program as U.S. President-elect Barack Obama prepares to enter the White House.
The North's leader Kim Jong-il appears to have given up handling many day-to-day tasks after suffering a stroke and this may explain the North's hardening stance, Selig Harrison, a scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, a policy institute in Washington D.C., said.
Harrison said senior North Korean officials had told him this week that 30.8 kg (68 pounds) of plutonium their government had listed as part of a preliminary disarmament agreement had been "weaponized" -- incorporated into warheards or other arms.
He said all the four senior Pyongyang officials he met, including Li Gun, the Foreign Ministry official in charge of dealings with Washington, said plutonium was now out of bounds of inspections intended to advance the now-stalled six-party disarmament talks.
"All of those I met said that North Korea has already weaponized the 30.8 kg of plutonium listed in its formal declaration and that the weapons cannot be inspected," Harrison told a news conference in the Chinese capital after returning from five days in Pyongyang, his eleventh visit to the isolated North since 1972.
"That means North Korea has four or five nuclear weapons, depending on the grade of plutonium, the specific weapons design and desired explosive yield."
The North Korean claims could not be verified, Harrison said, but they underscored a hardening of the state's position even as it made offers of cooperation to Obama.
The Pyongyang officials were vague about what weaponization meant, but it appeared most likely the plutonium would be fitted in missile warheads, Harrison said.
North Korea has delayed implementing a nuclear disarmament agreement struck at the six-party talks in Beijing, unwilling to accept verification rules demanded by the other countries in the talks and saying they have not abided by their energy aid vows.
"The prospects for the six-party talks, on the basis of my assessment, are very gloomy," said Harrison.
The talks bring together North and South Korea, China, the United States, Japan and Russia. They intensified after the North held its first nuclear test explosion in October 2006.
"My view is that change in the leadership situation has strengthened the hardliners in the National Defense Commission, who are now in control of the nuclear disarmament negotiations more directly," Harrison said.
But he said he was told North Korea wanted friendly relations with the United States. Continued...
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