The State Department says U.S. officials are firm in their belief that North Korea has a covert uranium-enrichment program, despite doubts expressed by China. Spokesmen say the United States is ready to take part in more six-party talks on the issue, sponsored by China later this month, and that only North Korea has yet to agree.
The State Department says information supporting the U.S. contention that North Korea has been enriching uranium as part of a nuclear weapons program "is very conclusive", and it says administration officials are puzzled by a new Chinese statement calling that into question.
The comments follow a New York Times interview with China's deputy foreign minister, Zhou Wenzhong. He said the United States has yet to persuade Beijing that North Korea has had both uranium and plutonium-based programs to develop fuel for nuclear bombs.
Pyongyang has acknowledged having a plutonium program, but denies also enriching uranium for weapons. Mr. Zhou was quoted by the New York Times as saying the United States has "not presented convincing evidence" on this and should stop making charges about it unless it can offer proof.
At a news briefing, State Department Spokesman Richard Boucher said North Korean officials spoke of the uranium program during a visit to Pyongyang by Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly in October 2002, and that the picture, if anything, has gotten clearer since then.
"Frankly, we find the assistant foreign minister's comments somewhat puzzling. We have made clear over time that there is very conclusive information that North Korea has a covert uranium-enrichment program. North Korea at that time acknowledged that it was pursuing uranium enrichment. Since that time, North Korea has withdrawn from the NPT, the [Nuclear] Non-Proliferation Treaty, they have restarted activities geared to the production of plutonium-based weapons. They have asserted their so-called right to develop nuclear weapons," he said.
A senior diplomat who spoke to reporters on condition on anonymity said the United States has information that the proliferation ring of Pakistani nuclear scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan transferred both uranium-enrichment equipment and technology to North Korea.
He also said that at the most recent set of working group talks on the nuclear issue in Beijing a month ago, the North Korean delegation, without admitting having a uranium enrichment program, inquired as to what benefits might accrue to Pyongyang "if they got rid of the program." "I know what their public posture is," the official said, "but no one should be fooled by it," he said.
The Bush administration has said it is prepared to join in multi-lateral guarantees for North Korea's security, under an agreement for the "complete, verifiable and irreversible" dismantling of all elements of the North Korean program, or CVID in diplomatic parlance.
At the last full round of Chinese-sponsored talks, in March, the North Koreans offered to freeze their nuclear program in return for aid.
The United States insisted on CVID, not a freeze, but also said it would not stand in the way of other participants in the talks providing aid to the impoverished communist state on an interim basis.
The senior diplomat said the United States is ready to take part in a new set of six-party talks the week of June 21, as proposed by China, and that the only holdout now is North Korea.
As planned, the session would begin with a few days of discussions in working groups and then go directly to a full plenary level.
In addition to China, the United States and North Korea, the talks also include South Korea, Japan and Russia.