North Korea said it is seeking to develop nuclear weapons, and it said it is doing so as part of a plan to help its people. But South Korea's president is repeating his commitment to peacefully ending the North's nuclear ambitions.
North Korea said it wants to save money for the sake of its people, and it says developing nuclear weapons will help.
North Korea's official news agency said that a nuclear deterrent will let it scale back its massive army, which is more than a million strong. The resulting savings, it said, will help "improve the living standards of the people."
The impoverished Stalinist state faced a famine in the mid-1990s. Aid agencies say millions of its people remain malnourished and the country's economy is close to collapse.
The United States said North Korean diplomats have admitted on three occasions that Pyongyang already possessed nuclear weapons. But the news commentary is the North's clearest public statement on the issue to date.
Hideshi Takesada, a professor at Japan's National Institute for Defense Studies, is skeptical of the North's claims. Professor Takesada said nuclear weapons production potentially offers huge profits for Pyongyang, which could export bombs to countries like Iran, Iraq, Syria, Egypt and Pakistan to earn foreign currency.
Meanwhile, South Korean President Roh Moo-Hyun wrapped up a four-day visit to Japan by repeating that Seoul will not tolerate the North having nuclear weapons.
Addressing Japan's Parliament, Mr. Roh said North Korea must abandon its nuclear ambitions and live in harmony with its neighbors. He said that if North Korea chooses that path, Japan, South Korea, and the international community will support Pyongyang.
Mr. Roh emphasized that he is seeking a peaceful, diplomatic solution to the problem. He did not repeat the warning he made at last month's summit with the United States that "further steps" may need to be taken, if diplomatic negotiations fail.
Washington and Tokyo have been more vocal in recent weeks about the possible need for stronger measures to curb North Korean nuclear programs. While they have not clarified what those measures might be, possible options include economic sanctions, a naval blockade, and even a military strike.
North Korea said economic sanctions will be equivalent to a declaration of war. Pyongyang insists the nuclear issue can only be resolved through bilateral talks with the United States, saying it will give up its nuclear ambitions in exchange for U.S. security assurances and economic aid.
The United States says North Korea must verifiably end its nuclear weapons programs before aid can be discussed. South Korea and Japan say they are ready to provide aid, when North Korea proves it is not building nuclear weapons.