N Korea's 'intent revealed'

2009-06-15 13:32

Seoul - North Korea is thought to have been developing a secret atomic weapons programme for seven or eight years despite taking part in long-running nuclear disarmament talks, a South Korean minister said on Monday.

Unification Minister Hyun In-Taek said Pyongyang never intended to give up its atomic weaponry, even though previous Seoul governments practised a decade-long "sunshine" aid and engagement policy.

Responding defiantly to tougher United Nations sanctions following its nuclear test last month, the communist state vowed on Saturday to build more bombs and to start a new weapons programme based on uranium enrichment.

The latest threats were set to dominate a summit on Tuesday in Washington between South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak and US President Barack Obama.

Hyun told a parliamentary hearing he believes the enrichment programme - a second route to an atomic bomb after the North's admitted plutonium operation - had in fact been in existence for years.

"As the US raised the accusation in 2002, I believe (the uranium enrichment programme) had started before that. I believe it has been there for at least seven to eight years," Hyun said in answer to a question.

The US claims in 2002, which were denied by the North, led to the collapse of a bilateral disarmament deal.

US-inspired campaign

Six-nation talks began in 2003 and in 2007 reached an agreement which led the North to shut down the plants that make weapons-grade plutonium.

Following a showdown with the UN, which began when the Security Council censured its April rocket launch, the North vowed to restart the plants. But until Saturday it had always denied seeking an enriched uranium programme.

The minister nodded when asked by a legislator from the conservative ruling party whether the North intended to retain nuclear weapons even during the engagement policy of previous liberal governments.

"Judging from the recent developments, I think such intent has now been revealed," Yonhap news agency quoted Hyun as saying.

Since its second nuclear test on May 25, the North has also tested short-range missiles, renounced the armistice on the Korean peninsula and threatened possible attacks on the South.

South Korea has sent extra troops and naval units to border islands seen as a likely flashpoint.

The North, blasting Friday's Security Council resolution as a "vile product" of a US-inspired campaign, has also said any "blockade" to enforce it would be an act of war.

'We are going to enforce the UN resolution'

The 15-member Council voted unanimously for Resolution 1874.

It calls for tighter inspections of cargo suspected of containing banned missile and nuclear-related items, a stricter arms embargo and targeted financial curbs to choke off revenue for the North's nuclear and missile sectors.

"We are going to enforce the UN resolution," US Vice-President Joe Biden promised on Sunday.

He told NBC television China and Russia had gone further than ever before "in joining us on real sanctions against North Korea. And it is important that we make sure those sanctions stick".

US intelligence sources quoted by American TV networks have said the North intends to respond to the resolution with a third nuclear test, following its first in 2006 and the second last month.

Lee will seek a written US commitment to provide a nuclear "umbrella" for Seoul in a summit joint statement, a Seoul presidential official told Yonhap.

The North's ruling party newspaper Rodong Sinmun said on Monday any such commitment would be "virtually formalising a provocation for nuclear war".

It denounced Lee for an "intolerable" crime by begging Washington to provide a nuclear umbrella, which would only help the peninsula become "a nuclear tinderbox".

The paper said North Korea's own nuclear programme had deterred war on the peninsula, not the US umbrella.

The North's nuclear deterrent had served not only as a "merciless iron hammer" for aggressors but also as an "iron shield" for South Koreans, it said.

Several analysts and officials believe ailing leader Kim Jong-Il, 67, is intensifying military tensions to bolster his authority as he tries to put in place a succession plan involving his youngest son, Jong-Un.

Biden said it was not possible to determine Pyongyang's motivations.

"We just have to deal with the reality that (North Korea) is a serious danger and a threat to the world, and particularly in East Asia," he said.