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North Korean Acknowledgement of Nuclear Arms May Have Been Misinterpreted - 2002-11-18


South Korean government officials and analysts in two countries now say a North Korean radio broadcast that said the communist state already possesses nuclear weapons may have been misinterpreted by translators.

Sunday's broadcast on North Korea's Pyongyang Radio, monitored in South Korea by the Yonhap News Agency, was originally thought to have said the reclusive nation already possesses nuclear weapons. That would be the North's first public acknowledgement of such a fact. All Pyongyang has admitted previously is that is has a uranium-enrichment program in operation.

But a South Korean official, along with analysts in South Korea and Japan, now say there might have been an error in translating the broadcast. It is possible, they say, that the actual translation of the Korean-language statement is that the North is "entitled" to have nuclear weapons, something it has said previously. Yonhap says the broadcast could have been misinterpreted because of the announcer's accent, or because Pyongyang was being purposely ambiguous.

Paik Hack-soon, a research fellow at South Korea's Sejong Institute, believes there was a linguistic mix-up. "I think the South Korean government's rereading of the audio tape suggests that there was a mistake in the initial reading of the tape. The North Korean announcer was speaking in the future tense, not in the present," he said. "So he said the North will have to have a nuclear program in the future [not that it has one now]."

Analysts at the Radio Press agency in Tokyo, which monitors North Korea broadcasts, also said Monday that the statement is difficult to interpret. But they believe it does not substantially differ from other recent comments in the North Korean media, which have said the nation has the right to possess nuclear weapons.

North Korea admitted to a U.S. envoy last month that it has a program for producing highly-enriched uranium, a key ingredient in nuclear weapons. The statement stunned the world because it placed the North in violation of a 1994 agreement with the United States, in which it pledged to stop its nuclear program.

In response, the United States, South Korea, Japan and other countries decided last week to stop future shipment of fuel oil to the North, which are also part of the 1994 agreement. The North depends on these fuel handouts for up to 15-percent of its energy needs. The donors are demanding the North to halt its nuclear program before fuel shipments can resume.

There were two unequivocal North Korean statements Monday. The state media lashed out at Japan, reiterating a threat to resume missile tests if Tokyo develops a missile shield in cooperation with the United States. The report in the official Rodong Sinmun, quoted by the Korean Central News Agency, criticizes Japanese Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba for suggesting Tokyo and Washington move forward on considering the project.

Tokyo and the U.S. decided to conduct joint research on a missile shield after North Korea test fired a missile over Japanese territory in 1998. But because of the project's huge budget, and objections from China and Russia, Japan has yet to make a firm commitment.

Pyongyang's official news agency also quoted a senior North Korean official Monday as accusing the United States of interfering with a project to relink a railway between the North and South across the Demilitarized Zone. The railway project is part of Seoul's push to keep Pyongyang engaged, despite the furor over the nuclear issue.

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