Bush administration officials say North Korea has admitted to U.S. diplomats that it has been operating a secret nuclear weapons program in what Washington calls a "serious violation" of the 1994 "agreed framework" accord between the two countries. The surprise development would appear to put the American-North Korean relationship, which had been warming of late, back into a deep freeze.
Administration officials say North Korea admitted to running the weapons program after being confronted with evidence of the covert operation by Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly during his visit to Pyongyang, earlier this month.
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher says the North Korean activity is a "serious violation" of the 1994 agreement. Pyongyang was to have scrapped its nuclear weapons ambitions, in exchange for Western-designed nuclear power plants and other aid.
The State Department says the situation also leaves Pyongyang in violation of other agreements, including the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and its agreement with Seoul on the de-nuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. However, the State Department spokesman says the United States seeks a peaceful resolution of the situation and, together with its allies, is calling on North Korea to comply with its international commitments and to eliminate its nuclear weapons program "in a verifiable manner." He says everyone in the region has a stake in the issue and that no peaceful nation wants to see a nuclear-armed North Korea.
American officials stress the administration has made no decision on how to proceed and its consulting with Congress and key allies, including South Korea and Japan, on the next steps in relations with Pyongyang.
Mr. Boucher says Assistant Secretary Kelly and the State Department's chief arms control official, John Bolton, are being sent to the region to confer with U.S. friends and allies on the surprise turn of events. American-North Korean contacts had begun to thaw in recent weeks. Mr. Kelly was the most-senior American official to visit Pyongyang since the end of the Clinton administration. Neither side had said much about the results of the Kelly mission, although North Korea had accused the assistant secretary of making what it said were "threatening remarks" during the three days of talks.
Mr. Boucher says, after Mr. Kelly presented the North Koreans evidence of its ongoing nuclear efforts, they attempted to blame the United States and said they considered the "agreed framework" nullified.
In his State of the Union Address last January, President Bush listed North Korea, along with Iran and Iraq, in what he termed an "axis of evil" of countries developing weapons of mass destruction and supporting international terrorism.
Despite its concerns about such activity, the Bush administration had supported recent efforts by South Korea and Japan to improve ties with Pyongyang and said it was prepared for its own dialogue with North Korea on issues of concern to both sides.
Mr. Boucher says President Bush had prepared an initiative, in recent months, offering economic and political steps to improve the lives of the North Korean people, provided that the North "dramatically" altered its behavior on a range issues. Included in these were its weapons programs, missile exports, and what was termed the "deplorable" treatment of the North Korean people.
"In light of our concerns about the North's nuclear weapons program however, we are unable to pursue this approach," says Mr. Boucher