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Japan, S. Korea Concerned over N. Korea's Weapons Program - 2002-10-17

North Korea's Asian neighbors reacted with surprise and concern Thursday after Bush administration officials revealed that North Korea has undertaken a secret nuclear weapons program. The leaders of Japan and South Korea are urging Pyongyang to maintain its recently renewed dialogue with their nations.

Tokyo says it is deeply concerned by the revelation that North Korea has a program to develop weapons-grade uranium, which is a violation of a 1994 agreement between Pyongyang and Washington. A U.S. State Department spokesman said North Korean officials admitted the existence of the program to an American delegation in Pyongyang earlier this month. However, Japan will still move forward with talks on normalizing ties with North Korea, which are due to open on October 29.

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 to dispel suspicion.

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

In South Korea, response to the U.S. announcement was also pointed, with one official saying that President Kim Dae-jung considers North Korea's confession a grave and unacceptable development. But the aide says Mr. Kim interprets Pyongyang's admission as a sign that it wants to resolve the issue through dialogue. Throughout his nearly five years in office, the South Korean president has emphasized a policy of engaging North Korea. The two nations have remained technically at war since 1953, when their conflict ended with no peace agreement.

Lee Tae-sik, the South Korean deputy foreign minister, underscored Kim Dae-jung's approach Thursday, saying that all issues should be resolved peacefully and through dialogue. But he also said that Seoul would broach the nuclear issue with the North through diplomatic channels, and that it would seek stronger cooperation with the United States and Japan.

The revelation of the weapons program comes as the secretive, Stalinist state has been opening up to the rest of the 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.