North Korea is prepared to declare itself a nuclear state unless the US responds positively to its proposals for resolving a row over Pyongyang's nuclear ambitions by Sept. 9 -- the anniversary of the communist country's founding, diplomatic sources in Tokyo said.
One source with close ties to Pyongyang said that the North was ready to declare itself officially a member of the nuclear club, opening the way for possible nuclear tests and more weapons.
"North Korea will move on to possess nuclear weapons and declare itself a nuclear state if the United States fails to respond to its proposals before September 9," he said.
Pyongyang has said it has finished reprocessing spent nuclear fuel that could allow it to make about a half a dozen atomic bombs, but doubts persist about the accuracy of its claims.
Another source, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said China feared that a muted response from the US or fruitless talks could prompt North Korea to declare itself a nuclear state.
"If the United States refused to strike a deal in one way or another, North Korea could go nuclear," the source said.
"This is what China worries about the most, and China as a mediator will lose face," he added.
Cautious hopes of a breakthrough in the nine-month-old crisis over North Korea's nuclear arms program have risen since China sent an envoy to Pyongyang earlier this month, apparently to suggest a compromise format for negotiations.
North Korea has said the crisis can only be defused by bilateral talks with the US and a non-aggression treaty between the two.
Washington now says it is open to three-way talks that would include China as a first step to broader multilateral discussions including Japan and South Korea.
And while US Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage has ruled out a non-aggression pact, he has said Washington could provide a security guarantee by exchanging letters or official statements if Pyongyang dismantled its nuclear arms programs.
North Korea thinks declaring itself a nuclear power would allow it to negotiate from a position of strength, but is willing to abandon its atomic program if it gets something substantial in return, the first Pyongyang-linked source said.
"If North Korea were to possess nuclear weapons, that would put the United States in a weaker and disadvantageous position in future negotiations," the source said.
A third diplomatic source in Tokyo said North Korean representatives at the UN have had frequent contact with US counterparts but were puzzled by vague responses.
"Pyongyang has been at a loss because the United States does not send any clear signals that it really wants to have a dialogue," the source said.
The US said on Tuesday it was considering fresh talks with North Korea and China on Pyongyang's nuclear ambitions if they were immediately followed by broader discussions.
But the diplomatic sources in Tokyo said that unless the fresh round of three-way talks helped the US and North Korea build "mutual trust," Pyongyang would not accept the five-nation forum which would include Japan and South Korea.
"If North Korea failed to secure trust in the United States after the three-way talks, it would never agree to five-nation talks," the first source said. "Everything hinges on the next round of three-way talks."
The North Korean nuclear crisis erupted last October when US officials said Pyongyang had admitted to a clandestine atomic weapons program, which Washington fears could threaten its allies in the region and destabilize Northeast Asia.