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N.Korea seeks more plutonium for nuclear arms scholar

Chris Buckley / Reuters | September 23 2006

A senior North Korean official said his country plans to unload fuel rods from a nuclear reactor to obtain more plutonium for weapons and pressure Washington for direct talks, a visiting U.S. scholar said on Saturday.

Selig Harrison, just back from a visit to the North Korean capital, told a Beijing news conference he had held lengthy discussions with Kim Kye-gwan, Pyongyang's top negotiator at stalled six-party talks on its nuclear ambitions.

"He did make clear that the purpose of unloading the fuel was to obtain more plutonium for nuclear weapons," Harrison said, noting that the material could make "enough plutonium for 3 to 6 nuclear weapons, depending on when they unload it".

Harrison, director of the Asia Program at the Center for International Policy in Washington, said Kim had told him the North planned to unload the rods from the Yongbyon reactor "beginning during this fall, not later than the end of the year" -- earlier than the normal fuel cycle for the reactor requires.

"They are speeding it up because they want to use Yongbyon to get bilateral negotiations with the United States to resolve the stalemate over the six-party talks," Harrison said.

The six-party talks aimed at ending Pyongyang's nuclear arms program have been stalled since November, with North Korea refusing to return to the table until Washington lifts financial curbs on its overseas financial activities. Other countries in the talks are China, South Korea, Russia and Japan.

Harrison said he had spent six hours in discussions with negotiator Kim during the September19-23 visit, and had been told he was the first U.S. scholar to visit North Korea this year.

He quoted Kim as saying that, if Washington conceded the face-to-face talks it has long resisted, "both sides could put whatever they've got on their minds on the table".

Kim told Harrison that North Korea wanted evidence that Washington would not pursue "regime change" to oust Pyongyang's hardline Communist regime.

The U.S. academic said his hosts also sought an end to the financial sanctions that he said were stifling North Korea's economic reforms.

"I'm optimistic that the Bush Administration will climb down in the near future," Kim said, according to Harrison.

"The United States should learn to live with a nuclear North Korea" until a full settlement to denuclearise the Korean peninsula was reached, Kim added.

Washington has refused to have bilateral negotiations with North Korea, except on the sidelines of the six-party talks. U.S. officials say the financial curbs are to deter drug trafficking and currency counterfeiting by Pyongyang, but Harrison said they were preventing legitimate trade.

"The financial sanctions are hurting their economic expansion; not their viability, but their expansion," Harrison said of North Korea.

Pyongyang announced early last year that it now had atomic weapons, but it has yet to test them. In July, the isolated fortress state test-fired missiles, raising alarm in Western capitals and Tokyo and provoking a United Nations Security Council resolution condemning the tests.

Since then, news reports have speculated that North Korea may be preparing a nuclear test. Washington has warned Pyongyang against any test without confirming it knows of any preparations.

Harrison said the North Korean officials he met were tight-lipped about a possible atomic test, neither confirming nor denying any preparations.

"All of them did emphasize that North Korea already had functioning nuclear weapons," he said. "North Korea wants to keep the world guessing about the possibility of a nuclear test."

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