South Korea's leader yesterday hoped to forge unity with President George W. Bush in Washington on how to secure North Korea's commitment to nuclear disarmament, as Japan fretted that the North's latest boasts may indicate advances in its nuclear weapons program.
Based on the North's bold claims this week, Japan said it believed the communist nation's nuclear weapons programs were "considerably advanced." However, the Japanese Defense Agency's administrative deputy director, Takemasa Moriya, acknowledged that Tokyo's assessment relied on the North's recent actions and announcements, not hard evidence.
US officials expressed optimism earlier this week after meetings with North Korean diplomats in New York that long-stalled nuclear disarmament talks would resume. But the North did not give any date for its return to the six-nation negotiations -- which also include China, Japan, Russia and South Korea -- and has reverted to its usual bombast in recent days. Yesterday, the North's main state-run newspaper repeated Pyongyang's demands that Washington drop its "hostile" policies before it will return to the arms talks.
"It is high time the US made a switchover from its anachronistic hostile policy toward [North Korea] to a policy of peaceful coexistence," Rodong Sinmun said.
North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Kim Gye Gwan told ABC News in Pyongyang this week that the communist nation had "enough nuclear bombs to defend against a US attack" without being more specific, and said it was building more. Kim also hinted that his country's weapons scientists could mount nuclear warheads on missiles.
The North has never tested a nuclear weapon and analysts speculate that it tries to exaggerate its nuclear capabilities as leverage to secure aid in international disarmament talks. However, the North is widely believed to have enough weapons-grade plutonium for a half-dozen bombs, and it recently made moves allowing it to harvest more nuclear material from its main reactor.
Reviving the nuclear talks -- dormant since a year ago -- was high on the agenda yesterday for South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun and Bush, who were scheduled to meet later in the day at the White House.
Despite the nuclear standoff, Roh has continued his policy of engagement with the North -- deepening divisions with Seoul's main ally Washington, who views the North as a rogue regime at risk of proliferating weapons of mass destruction.
This year, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called the North one of the world's "outposts of tyranny." Bush reiterated in a Wednesday interview with Fox News that Washington had not ruled out the possibility of referring North Korea to the UN for sanctions, saying it was "an option down the road."
Roh has come out against regime change in the North and even expressed understanding of why it wants nuclear weapons, purportedly for self-defense.
Roh also has expressed concern about reforms in the US military to create a more flexible force -- raising worries American troops here could become embroiled in regional conflicts, particularly between Taiwan and China.