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North Korean officials proud of their nuclear test, U.S. experts say

WASHINGTON—North Korean officials are proud of their country's nuclear test and are unlikely to be persuaded easily to give up their nuclear weapons, a group of Korea experts said Wednesday after a visit to the reclusive communist nation.

The experts, who visited North Korea's capital of Pyongyang from Oct. 31 to Nov. 4, just weeks after the Oct. 9 test, said they were surprised by conditions in the city, where streets were crowded with cars and, something new this year, motorcycles.

"There were also well-dressed people on the streets like I hadn't seen before," said Robert Carlin, a former U.S. intelligence analyst making his 26th visit to North Korea.

Carlin said he saw trucks laden with cabbages, new buildings going up and others freshly painted, and a well-stocked free market whose parking lot was jammed with cars.

Siegfried S. Hecker, a nuclear scientist and former director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, said he and the others met with the head of North Korea's Yongbyon nuclear center, Ri Hong Sop, but weren't allowed to visit the center. They also spoke with high-ranking officials in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the army and the government.

The delegation was led by John W. Lewis, a Chinese politics and North Korea expert at Stanford University.

Hecker said that North Korean officials said they remained committed to a Sept. 19, 2005, agreement with the United States that would end the nuclear program in exchange for security guarantees and energy benefits. But Hecker said he concluded it would be harder now to persuade the North Koreans to do so.

Delegation member Charles L. Pritchard, the U.S. special envoy for negotiations with North Korea from 2001 to 2003, said he also believed that the North Koreans would be tougher negotiators.

"A few years ago I'd say it was possible to negotiate an end of the crisis. Now I'm not so sure," Pritchard said. The North Koreans are feeling confident and, in their words, "on an equal footing" with the United States, the former negotiator said.

The group met with Li Gun, deputy director general of the North Korean Ministry for Foreign Affairs, who said North Korea was committed to returning to six-party talks and the eventual denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, Pritchard said.

Li also told the delegation that North Korea wouldn't use nuclear weapons first and wouldn't sell nuclear weapons and technology to any group, including al-Qaida.

But Pritchard said Li made clear that North Korea had short-term expectations for the upcoming talks with the United States and the four other nations, which North Korea agreed to on Oct. 31.

Li also said that China will unfreeze North Korean assets in a Macau bank and that the United States won't object as a condition of the talks, Pritchard said.

The U.S. government has claimed that North Korea was using Banco Delta Asia to launder illegal profits from drug trafficking, counterfeiting and cigarette smuggling, and it has put pressure on the bank to stop doing business with North Korea.

Li said there had to be progress on Banco Delta Asia first, and he indicated that North Korea next would insist on dropping the sanctions contained in a U.N. Security Council resolution.

U.S. officials have said that the U.N. sanctions should be implemented but that they'll discuss the Macau bank issue at the talks. The six-party talks also include China, South Korea, Russia and Japan.

Pritchard said Li quoted President Reagan on the need to "trust but verify." Li acknowledged that verification would be necessary if North Korea agrees to suspend its nuclear programs, but insisted that it also would be necessary to verify that it receives benefits at each step.

Pritchard said the group immediately e-mailed a report to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. The Bush administration didn't sanction the trip and hasn't responded, he said.

Hecker suggested in a written report that the United States must do more to address North Korea's security concerns.

He also said that North Korean officials had "little appreciation of the issues of safety and security related to having a nuclear arsenal." North Korea probably has enough plutonium for nine nuclear weapons and can produce enough for one per year over the next few years, he said.

Ri and other officials didn't provide details about the Oct. 9 test, but Chinese nuclear experts put it at about 1 kiloton, which they described as "successful but not perfect," Hecker said.

Many things can go wrong in a test, but a 1-kiloton test isn't a fizzle, as some U.S. officials have suggested, Hecker said. The U.S. atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki, Japan, produced a 21-kiloton blast.

"A 1-kiloton explosion in Manhattan would be a catastrophe," Hecker said.

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(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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