As a new round of multilateral talks over the North Korean nuclear program gets underway in Beijing, a high-ranking North Korean defector says Pyongyang already had nuclear weapons before it signed a 1994 nuclear accord with the United States. The chief U.S. negotiator at the time says if Washington had known, it would not have "stood by and let North Korea build nuclear weapons."

The early 1990's were a particularly tense time in U.S.-North Korean relations. Washington knew North Korea had a plutonium-based nuclear weapons program, and wanted Pyongyang to completely stop it.

But how far along exactly was North Korea? In a recent interview with VOA's Korean service, Hwang Jang Yop, the highest-ranking North Korean defector, who went to South Korea in 1997, says Pyongyang had nuclear weapons by 1994. He says his information came from a very highly-placed source, the son of North Korean President Kim Il-Sung, who succeeded him as that country's central leader.

"Of course it did," he said. "I am sick and tired of being asked that question over and over. I heard it directly from Kim Jong-Il."

Mr. Hwang was the secretary of international affairs for North Korea's ruling Labor, or Communist, Party. He says the party's secretary of military industry, Jeon Byong-Ho, told him the underground nuclear test was ready and that he was awaiting Kim Jong-Il's approval.

"Mr. Jeon asked me if Kim Jong-Il would not approve the test because of international problems. I answered, 'It could be possible. Mr. Kim is looking at all the circumstances, and he may be considering whether it would be wise to conduct a nuclear test and make it known to the world that we possess nuclear weapons.'"

Mr. Hwang says this exchange occurred before Kim Il-Sung died in July 1994, and before the Geneva talks that led to the Agreed Framework, in October of that year.

Mr. Hwang says the chief North Korean negotiator, Vice-Foreign Minister Kang Sok-Ju, told him after returning from Geneva that he had been very concerned about the possibility of a war breaking out. The defector said Vice-Foreign Minister Kang added that the chief U.S. negotiator, Robert Gallucci, acknowledged North Korea's possession of nuclear weapons by hinting that Pyongyang should not produce any more.

Ambassador Gallucci, who is now the dean of Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service, stresses that he never knew whether North Korea actually possessed any nuclear weapons.

"Vice-Foreign Minister Kang told me, on more than one occasion that North Korea could produce nuclear weapons," he said. "It had the capability to do that. It had no intention of doing that. If he had told me they had nuclear weapons, I'm sure I would have said something other than 'don't do it again,' which strikes me as a bizarre response."

Mr. Gallucci says he maintained a tough stance throughout the negotiations, and consciously kept the option of using military force on the table because it was 'useful for focusing North Korean minds on the negotiation.'

The former American negotiator says his main goal was making sure North Korea did not get nuclear-weapons grade plutonium from the spent reactor fuel rods that were being kept in a storage pond.

"I really believed that if the North Koreans had begun reprocessing the spent fuel that was in the pond, that the President of the United States, at that time, would have authorized an air strike to take out that pond," he said. "And I think he would have done that. I don't know that, but I think that's plausible. And we certainly would have had to prepare for the possibility that would have led to hostilities. We would have had to consult with Seoul and consult with Tokyo before doing it, but I think it was a real possibility. So, we worried about that and we wanted to solve this problem by negotiation rather than take the risk of starting another Korean War."

Mr. Gallucci acknowledges that the 1994 Agreed Framework between the United States and North Korea was far from perfect. But he stresses that it did produce one important achievement.

"It [the Agreed Framework] was signed in October of 1994, and really, until quite late, 2002, December of 2002, the framework held the North Korean plutonium production program in a sort of cryogenic arrest," said Mr. Gallucci. "It was frozen. So, I would say the framework achieved its principle objective, which was to block North Korean plutonium production and nuclear weapons manufacture for quite a long time, about eight years."

The latest crisis was sparked in October 2002, when U.S. negotiators say their North Korean counterparts acknowledged a separate nuclear program to develop weapons using highly-enriched uranium. North Korea has since issued denials, but at the same time, Pyongyang kicked out international inspectors and pulled out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. Meanwhile, Pyongyang also removed thousands of spent fuel rods from the storage pond and said it was planning to restart its plutonium program.