An American expert who was part of a private delegation that visited North Korea earlier this month says Pyongyang is denying U.S. claims that it is developing nuclear weapons. At the same time, though, he says a North Korean storage facility that once contained spent nuclear fuel rods is now empty.
In his first substantive public comments since returning home from a visit to North Korea, former U.S. envoy Charles Pritchard, says North Korean authorities allowed the delegation to see several key nuclear sites, including a storage pond that used to hold 8,000 spent nuclear fuel rods.
"The spent fuel facility, the spent fuel storage pond, was empty," he said. "There are no spent fuel storage rods there. You may recall that these were in canisters manufactured by the United States. Those canisters were empty."
Mr. Pritchard says North Korean officials told the Americans they have reprocessed the spent nuclear fuel. But he added that he has no way to confirm that information.
He says a five megawatt reactor he saw in North Korea was operational, but the reprocessing facility he saw was not.
Mr. Pritchard spoke Thursday at the Brookings Institution, where he is now an associate. He resigned last year from his job as a top U.S. negotiator on the North Korean nuclear crisis.
The former U.S. official said he was with Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly in October 2002, when American officials say Pyongyang acknowledged it had a highly-enriched uranium program. Now, he says, North Korea's position has changed.
"At the time, we firmly believed that we heard the North Koreans admit to their program," Mr. Pritchard said. "In the subsequent weeks, the North Koreans didn't do much to deny that. But over the past year, they have gone from some degree of ambiguity, to neither confirm nor deny, to a denial."
Mr. Pritchard says Pyongyang's denials do not change his opinion that North Korea is pursuing a nuclear weapons program. But he added that he also believes North Korea can be persuaded to stop.
"It was clear to me in this visit that they are still of the mind that it is more important than not to develop a relationship with the United States, and in that regard, they are prepared, at this point, to give up their nuclear weapons program," he said.
However, Mr. Pritchard says in a nine-hour meeting, North Korean Vice Minister Kim Kye Gwan warned the American delegation that the United States is running out of time.
"'The lapse of time - these are direct quotes - 'the lapse of time will result in the quantitative and qualitative increase in our nuclear deterrent.' Are they bluffing? No, I don't think so. I think it's somewhat matter of fact, but they certainly are using that to their advantage, in what they see to be upcoming talks and eventual negotiations, in whatever context, with the United States," Charles Pritchard said.
Six-nation talks on resolving the North Korean crisis are expected to resume as early as next month. An inconclusive first round of meetings - bringing together representatives from China, Japan, North Korea, Russia, South Korea and the United States - was held in Beijing in August.
The non-official U.S. delegation that visited North Korea earlier this month also included Siegfried Hecker, a former head of the Los Alamos National Laboratory. Mr. Hecker is scheduled to give a more detailed technical report to the U.S. Senate next week.