The United States said Friday a North Korean nuclear test would harm the Chinese-sponsored six-party talks, and only serve to further isolate Pyongyang. The comments followed a New York Times report that U.S. satellite monitoring appears to show intensive preparations in North Korea for a weapons test.
Officials here appeared to down play the New York Times account that U.S. satellite photos indicate "rapid, extensive" preparations for a nuclear test at a remote site in the northeastern part of North Korea.
But they say the United States has long presumed that North Korea possesses several nuclear weapons, and that a demonstration of that capability would only add to North Korea's international isolation, and be a setback for the six-party talks.
There have been several recent press accounts about possible North Korean test preparations, and a senior U.S. defense analyst told a Senate committee last week Pyongyang may be capable of putting a nuclear warhead on a two-stage missile that could hit parts of the United States.
At a news briefing, State Department spokesman Thomas Casey reiterated a comment by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice this week that the United States has the military capability to deter any North Korean threat.
He said the Bush administration remains intent on reviving the six-party talks, which have been idle for nearly a year.
"I think the larger point here is that we are still focused on getting North Korea back to the table for the six-party talks. We still believe that's the way forward. And we believe that anything North Korea does that takes it further away from bringing those talks back on-line only serves to isolate it, only serves to hurt the interests of North Korea and its people," he said.
There were similar comments from White House Spokesman Scott McClellan traveling with President Bush in Latvia.
He told reporters a North Korean nuclear test would be a "provocative act," and that the United States wants to see Pyongyang return to the negotiations and discuss, in a serious way, how to move forward on the U.S. proposal offered last year.
That proposal offers North Korea multi-lateral security guarantees, along with the prospect of increased aid and diplomatic recognition, in return for the verifiable and irreversible dismantling of its nuclear program.
Friday's New York Times report quoted U.S. officials who had seen satellite photos as saying North Korea has dug a tunnel at the suspect site reminiscent of one used in Pakistan for nuclear tests in 1998.
It further said the North Koreans had built a reviewing stand several kilometers from the excavation, apparently for dignitaries to observe an underground test.
However, the newspaper also said some U.S. analysts believe the activity might be an elaborate show for the spy satellites, to try to pressure the Bush administration into offering Pyongyang more incentives at the talks.
A senior official, who spoke here on condition he not be identified, would not address specifics of U.S. intelligence information.
But he said he would discourage the notion there is some "new or startling assessment" of what the North Koreans may be up to.
The six-party talks, involving Russia, Japan and South Korea along with the United States, China and North Korea, have not convened since last June, when the United States presented its proposal.
North Korea backed out of a commitment to attend another round in Beijing last September.
In subsequent official statements it has set down various conditions for its return, including an end to what Pyongyang says is a hostile U.S. policy toward the communist state.