TOKYO—North Korea's declaration on Thursday that it possesses a nuclear weapons arsenal and will drop out of talks on giving it up sent the United States and its partners searching for a way to re-engage with the autocratic and isolated regime.
The North Korean claim came as Knight Ridder learned that the U.S. intelligence community six months ago raised its estimate of the size of North Korea's nuclear arsenal to between two and 15 bombs.
The lower assessment came from intelligence analysts at the Department of Energy, caretaker of the U.S. nuclear arsenal, while the higher number came from the Defense Intelligence Agency, said U.S. officials, who requested anonymity because the estimate is classified.
The U.S. officials, however, cautioned that the numbers weren't based on hard evidence, but on assumptions based on such factors as the quantity and quality of North Korea's highly enriched uranium.
The previous classified estimate put the number of North Korean nuclear weapons between two and nine.
The United States, Japan, South Korea, China and Russia have been urging severely impoverished North Korea to return to talks aimed at getting it to dismantle its nuclear program in exchange for security guarantees and economic assistance.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said the North Korean announcement was "a most unfortunate move, most especially, probably, for the people of North Korea." She urged North Korea to reassess its decision to pull out of the talks, saying a withdrawal "only deepens North Korean isolation from the rest of the international community."
Rice, in Luxembourg, gave no hint of what concrete actions the Bush administration plans to take. Washington will consult with North Korea's neighbors in northeast Asia, she said. Rice plans to meet with the South Korean foreign minister on Monday.
"We are confident ... that the United States and its allies can deal with any potential threat from North Korea. And North Korea understands that," she said.
North Korea didn't back up its nuclear assertion, and some experts said the nation might be trying to up the ante in the crisis as a ploy to increase its bargaining leverage. It has used brinkmanship before.
In its statement, North Korea's foreign ministry decried what it called Washington's "wicked nature" and "hostility" and lashed out at Rice, who called Pyongyang an "outpost of tyranny" during her confirmation hearings on Capitol Hill last month and has been in Europe this week sternly warning Iran about its secret nuclear programs.
The North Korean government said the Bush administration still seeks to topple the one-party Kim Jong Il regime.
"This compels us to take a measure to bolster its (North Korea's) nuclear weapons arsenal in order to protect the ideology, system, freedom and democracy chosen by its people," the statement said.
North Korea said it would suspend its participation in the six-party talks "for an indefinite period till we have recognized that there is justification for us to attend the talks and there are ample conditions and atmosphere to expect positive results."
Rice rejected North Korea's assertion that the United States is pursuing an increasingly hostile policy.
"The North Koreans have been told by the president of the United States himself that the United States has no intention of attacking or invading North Korea," she said.
One new development that could add urgency is new evidence indicating that North Korea may be more actively involved in nuclear proliferation than previously thought.
The Bush administration this month dispatched an Asia affairs specialist on the National Security Council, Michael Green, to present the evidence to the governments of China, South Korea and Japan.
Some, but not all, U.S. intelligence analysts believe North Korea supplied Libya with large quantities of partly processed uranium, known as uranium hexafluoride, which can be further processed to produce highly enriched uranium for nuclear bomb fuel, according to an Asian diplomat in Washington who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the nuclear talks.
Canisters that carried uranium hexafluoride were surrendered by Libya and contained radioactive trace material that scientists at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee identified as North Korean plutonium.
In addition, A.Q. Khan, the nuclear scientist who headed the Pakistani weapons program and ran an international nuclear materials smuggling ring, gave evidence that the North Koreans exported the material. Finally, scientists were unable to match the distinctive chemical tracings of the Libyan-processed uranium to any known source. Since nearly all potential sources of the chemical can be identified, by process of elimination, North Korea emerges as a likely, but not necessarily the only, source. There's no record of the chemical signature of North Korean-processed uranium.
According to the diplomat, Chinese government officials for the first time didn't raise doubts about the U.S. intelligence and didn't dispute whether North Korea had a secret program to produce highly enriched uranium.
China is North Korea's only major friend and an important source of food and oil.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Kong Quan said China hopes the talks can continue and repeated China's desire for a denuclearized and peaceful Korean Peninsula on its border.
Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi said that "it would be in North Korea's interest to make use of the six-party forum."
"No one but the North Korean leadership knows if they have nuclear weapons, and we don't know anything more now than we did before," said Peter Hayes, a North Korea watcher and head of the Nautilus Institute, a public policy organization.
Hayes said North Korea has never demonstrated its capacity by testing a nuclear weapon in a way that can be monitored.
"Either they are preparing the North Korean populace for an actual test," Hayes said, "or it is timed to put more Chinese and other pressure on the Bush administration to shift ground and provide more buyout of whatever capacities they have."
(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent Warren P. Strobel, traveling with the secretary of state, contributed from Luxembourg and the secretary's plane. Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondents John Walcott, Jonathan S. Landay and Steven Butler contributed to this report from Washington.)
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20050210 Nuclear nations
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