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North Koreans Withdraw From Nuclear Treaty

The regime quits the nonproliferation pact as a 'self-defensive measure.' It also begins an unusual round of talks in New Mexico.

January 10, 2003|Barbara Demick and Sonni Efron | Times Staff Writers

SEOUL — North Korea defiantly declared today that it was immediately pulling out of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, the most important pact to stem the spread of nuclear weapons, in a bold escalation of its challenge to the United States and the international community.

The announcement came only hours after two North Korean diplomats flew to Santa Fe, N.M., presumably on orders from North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, to talk to New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, a former U.N. ambassador who has had dealings with North Korea for years.

It was unclear whether the North Korean decision, announced this morning in a detailed statement by the communist country's official news agency, KCNA, had been prepared before the regime's unorthodox involvement of Richardson in the crisis.

North Korea said its withdrawal from the treaty was a "legitimate self-defensive measure."

"The nonproliferation treaty is being used as a tool for implementing the hostile U.S. policy toward [North Korea] aimed to disarm it and destroy its system by force," KCNA said. The statement criticized the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency -- which this week issued a resolution calling on North Korea to readmit arms inspectors -- as a tool of the United States that was trying to "encroach on our country's sovereignty and the dignity of the nation."

In a similar crisis in 1993, North Korea threatened its withdrawal from the nonproliferation treaty during a struggle over inspections at its Yongbyon nuclear complex, 55 miles north of Pyongyang, the capital. Under international law, there should be 90 days' notice to exit the treaty, but North Korea said in today's statement that the clock had started running back in 1993 so the withdrawal would take place immediately.

Opting out of the 1970 nonproliferation treaty solidifies North Korea's status as an international pariah and could roll back some of the progress it had made in establishing diplomatic relations with Western countries, such as Britain and Australia. But the move also absolves North Korea of its obligation to admit nuclear inspectors to its facilities. And it could weaken the ability of the Bush administration to push the matter before the U.N. Security Council, which oversees enforcement of the treaty and signatory countries.

In today's statement, North Korea reiterated an earlier assertion that it has "no intention to produce nuclear weapons, and our nuclear activities at this stage will be confined only to peaceful purposes, such as the production of electricity."

The statement said that North Korea is seeking a "peaceful settlement of the nuclear issue through negotiations." It also said North Korea might be willing to set up a "separate verification" procedure with the United States, circumventing the U.N. inspection agency, to prove that it does not have nuclear weapons.

Relations between the United States and North Korea have been deteriorating since October, when the North Koreans told Assistant Secretary of State James A. Kelly that they were buying equipment to enrich uranium, which can be used for nuclear bombs.

In reaction to the North's Thursday announcement, South Korea called an emergency meeting of its National Security Council, and President Kim Dae Jung said more dialogue was needed.

Japan demanded North Korea retract its statement, and a Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman said Moscow was concerned. There was no immediate comment from the U.S.

"This is another way that the North Koreans are pushing forward to make this a bilateral issue with the United States," said Daniel Pinkston of the Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, Calif. He said none of the other nearly 200 member nations had ever withdrawn from the treaty, so it remains unclear how the move by North Korea will be dealt with by the international community.

"It is unprecedented. The North Koreans are charting new territory," he said.

North Korea watchers have termed moves over the past weeks mere brinkmanship on the part of Kim to force the United States into negotiations, possibly to extract more humanitarian aid. But some believe that North Korea also aspires to become a nuclear power such as India, Pakistan and Israel, all of which have nuclear capabilities but are not signatories to the treaty. North Korea joined the treaty in 1985 under pressure from the Soviet Union, which had offered to help Pyongyang with its chronic energy shortages if it became a member.

After the Soviet Union collapsed, the promised aid never materialized, and North Korea balked at treaty obligations that required it to admit inspectors to nuclear facilities such as Yongbyon. At Yongbyon, North Korea last week expelled nuclear inspectors. The Pyongyang regime is also in the process of restarting a 5-megawatt nuclear reactor that scientists believe is better designed for producing weapons-grade plutonium than electricity.

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