A North Korean envoy said yesterday that his nation was ready for "both war and dialogue" following a report that the communist North has taken a key step toward building nuclear bombs.
"Our basic position is that we want to resolve the [nuclear] issue peacefully," negotiator Kim Ryong-song said before talks with South Korean delegates in Seoul. "But if outside forces ignore our position and try to use force, we will face them boldly and show our strength."
Kim urged cooperation between the South and North to prevent war on the Korean Peninsula amid a crisis over the North's suspected development of atomic weapons. He also issued a defiant warning to the US, although he did not mention South Korea's chief ally by name.
"Throughout history, our nation has been harassed by foreign invaders," Kim said. "We will no longer succumb to foreign coercion and we are fully ready to launch counterattacks. We are ready for both war and dialogue."
He recited a Korean adage: "If your fists are weak, you can use them only to wipe your tears."
Kim's South Korean counterpart, Unification Minister Jeong Se-hyun, said a solution to the nuclear issue required the participation of the international community, not only inter-Korean cooperation.
"National cooperation is OK, but it should not be national cooperation in a cave," Jeong said. South Korea wants North Korea to agree to multilateral talks on how to stop the North's nuclear development, but the North prefers one-on-one contact with the US, which it views as its main enemy.
Shin Eun-sang, a South Korean spokesman, said southern negotiators warned that North Korea "should not worsen the situation" and reminded it that it could win economic aid if it gives up its nuclear ambitions. Northern officials insisted that the US first stop its "hostile policy" toward the North, Shin said.
The opening of the Cabinet-level talks was overshadowed by revelations by South Korea's intelligence agency that North Korea has reprocessed a small portion of its 8,000 spent nuclear fuel rods. The procedure yields plutonium, which can be used to make nuclear weapons.
Ko Young-koo, director of Seoul's National Intelligence Service, also told the National Assembly on Wednesday that North Korean scientists conducted 70 tests of high explosives used to trigger nuclear blasts.
Local media, quoting lawmakers who attended Ko's closed-door parliamentary hearing, said the tests were conducted between 1997 and last September. South Korea earlier said North Korea conducted 70 similar tests between 1983 and 1993.
Reprocessing all the North's 8,000 rods could yield enough plutonium for several atomic devices, adding to the North's suspected arsenal of one or two nuclear weapons, experts say.
Officials from Australia, the US, Japan and eight European nations met for the second day yesterday in Brisbane, Australia, to discuss how their militaries can intercept ships and planes of North Korea and other "rogue states" suspected of carrying weapons of mass destruction.
About 50 elderly South Koreans rallied outside the Seoul hotel hosting yesterday's meeting, chanting "Stop North Korea's nuclear program!"
The protesters carried two large imitation North Korean missiles, and burned two North Korean flags.
The North Korean delegation arrived Wednesday and was scheduled to leave tomorrow.