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Asia Reacts to N. Korea's Secret Nuclear Weapons Program - 2002-10-17

China reacted calmly Thursday after Bush administration officials revealed that North Korea has undertaken a secret nuclear weapons program. Beijing said the matter should be settled peacefully, a view echoed in Tokyo and Seoul.

China offered limited comment on the revelation that North Korea has been working to develop weapons-grade uranium, a violation of a 1994 agreement between Pyongyang and Washington.

Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Zhang Qiyue told reporters Thursday that China has always supported a nuclear-free Korean peninsula. She says China believes the existence of North Korea's secret weapons program should be settled peacefully, through dialogue and negotiation.

North Korea's other neighbors, Japan and South Korea, reacted with surprise but also with caution to the announcement. While China is an ally of North Korea, Pyongyang has never established diplomatic ties with Japan and remains technically at war with South Korea, after the two nations' conflict ended in 1953 without a peace treaty.

Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi says the North needs to observe international laws, including those governing nuclear programs. He asks North Korea to deal with the issue sincerely in order to dispel suspicion.

At a landmark summit last month in Pyongyang, Japan and North Korea agreed to restart talks on setting up diplomatic ties.

At that meeting, North Korean Leader Kim Jong Il told Mr. Koizumi that his nation would abide by all international agreements concerning its nuclear program. Tokyo says it still plans to go forward with the talks on normalizing ties, which are due to start on October 29.

South Korea's response to the U.S. announcement was pointed, with one official saying that President Kim Dae-jung considers North Korea's weapons program a grave and unacceptable development. But North Korea did admit that its weaponsprogram was in progress, and the aide says Mr. Kim interprets this admission as a sign that Pyongyang wants to resolve the issue through dialogue. Throughout his nearly five years in office, the South Korean president has pushed a policy of engaging the North.

The revelation of the weapons program comes as North Korea has been opening up to the outside world, apparently prompted by the desperate state of its economy.

Pyongyang has embarked on a series of economic reforms and in recent months, has held a series of meetings and exchanges with South Korea and Japan, indicating that it wants better relations with its neighbors.