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Background: Going Nuclear

October 17, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT
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SPENCER MICHELS: Late yesterday, White House officials said that North Korea had divulged to an American diplomat 12 days ago that it had a nuclear weapons program under way. The disclosure by the government of Kim Jong Il nullifies a 1994 agreement to freeze all nuclear programs, and three other international treaties, say U.S. officials. As part of the surprise disclosure, North Korea reportedly told the Bush Administration it has “more powerful things as well,” an indication of additional weapons of mass destruction. Official Washington reacted strongly. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld:

REPORTER: Do you view the North Korean admission of this nuclear program as a sign of belligerence or is it a good sign that they’re coming clean about it?

DONALD RUMSFELD: Ha! I don’t think there’s any way in the world anyone could say it’s a good sign that when they were called and confronted and told that we have evidence that they’re violating all four of these agreements by engaging in a highly enriched uranium route development program for additional nuclear weapons, I don’t see how anyone could say that that’s a good sign.

REPORTER: Mr. Secretary, do you believe that Iraq is more dangerous than North Korea today?

DONALD RUMSFELD: Iraq has unique characteristics that distinguish it and that suggest that it is nominated itself to… for special attention because of the breadth of what they’re doing.

REPORTER: What’s the difference of Saddam Hussein and North Korean Leader Kim Jong Il? They’re both dictators. They’re threatening neighbors and they both have nuclear programs. They are abusing the human rights. Why don’t you seek a regime change or change of regime in North Korea like you do in Iraq?

DONALD RUMSFELD: Each of those countries in the terrorist list are different. They’re different in a variety of different ways. I’ve explained the differences from this podium on a number of occasions and I explained it in my testimony and I prefer to leave it there.

SPENCER MICHELS: At the State Department, Spokesman Richard Boucher said U.S. Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly went to Pyongyang two weeks ago and confronted the North Koreans with evidence of its uranium enrichment program.

RICHARD BOUCHER: North Korea, for several years, has been trying to enrich uranium, and the only purpose for doing that is to develop nuclear weapons. We’ve always said we’re ready to discuss with North Korea our serious concerns about things that they were doing. We went out there to tell them they had to deal with it by eliminating in a verifiable manner.

SPENCER MICHELS: Boucher said North Korea has given no indication it will shut down its nuclear program. At issue is the 1994 agreement between the U.S. and North Korea that former President Jimmy Carter helped negotiate. Under the so-called agreed framework, the Clinton Administration convinced Pyongyang to no longer harvest plutonium. In return, the U.S. and other countries pledged to replace North Korea’s nuclear power plants that produce plutonium with light-water reactors, which don’t. Those have yet to be delivered. The two sides also agreed to lift trade barriers and pursue full diplomatic and economic relations. Elsewhere, Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi indicated he had “grave concerns” about the revelations.

JUNICHIRO KOIZUMI, Prime Minister, Japan (Translated): North Korea should respect the international limitations on nuclear weapons and should deal with this issue in a sincere manner to eliminate concerns about their nuclear weapon project.

SPENCER MICHELS: South Korea reacted in similar fashion.

YIM SUNG-JOON, National Security Adviser, South Korea ( Translated ): The President considers this matter as a very serious one which cannot be accepted under any circumstances.

SPENCER MICHELS: The latest flap developed just as the historically secretive North Korean regime of Kim Jong Il had begun cautiously opening its doors to its neighbors and to Washington.