AFP, SEOUL: North Korea ended a self-imposed moratorium on testing long-range missiles and said “hostile” US policy was forcing it to develop its nuclear arsenal, prompting immediate condemnation from Japan.
The moratorium was announced in September 1999 — one year after it sparked global concern by test-launching a missile over Japan.
North Korea said it was agreed when dialogue was under way with the former US administration of Bill Clinton. It said current US President George W. Bush had cut off talks when he took office in 2001, making the moratorium invalid.
“Accordingly, we are not bound to the moratorium on the missile launch at present,” said a 5,000-word foreign ministry statement explaining why North Korea is boycotting new six-nation talks on its nuclear weapons programs.
“As everybody knows, the US hostile policy toward (North Korea) compels it to bolster its self-defensive nuclear arsenal,” said the statement carried by the official KCNA news agency.
The announcement came a day after North Korea, a self-proclaimed atomic power, demanded the US apologise for calling it part of an “axis of evil” and one of the “outposts of tyranny” before it would return to the talks.
Japan, which neighbours North Korea across the East Sea (Sea of Japan), quickly condemned the latest statement.
“North Korea is trying to raise the stakes by stirring tension ahead of the six-way nuclear talks,” an official in the foreign ministry's Northeast Asia division told AFP on condition of anonymity.
“It is unproductive,” he said. “Japan, South Korea and the United States continue to work toward a resumption of six-way talks without any conditions.”
The latest North Korean bombshell — which on February 10 announced it was pulling out of the talks indefinitely and had manufactured nuclear weapons — came as diplomacy continued to bring it back to the table.
China's top nuclear envoy, Vice Foreign Minister Wu Dawei, and US Ambassador to Seoul Christopher Hill, who heads Washington's negotiating team to the talks, met at the US embassy in Seoul.
US officials refused to give details on the meeting but Hill later told a seminar that the United States would only address North Korean demands at the negotiating table.
“We will be prepared and we have been prepared to deal with any questions and deal with the DPRK (North Korea), but at the table,” he said at a seminar.
“I would say we are very much ready, but the question is, do they really want to stay out of the only process which is going forward and build a nuclear programme that really has no use?” he said.
The State Department also brushed off the demand for an apology for Bush's 2002 description of North Korea as part of an “axis of evil” and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's comment in January that it was one of the world's “outposts of tyranny”.
US officials say North Korea's missile program poses a serious threat to the United States and its allies. North Korea's missile launch in 1998 prompted Japan to begin researching missile defense.
South Korea's intelligence agency says North Korea is developing rocket engines for its Taepodong-2 missile with a range of 6,700 kilometers (4,150 miles), which would be capable of hitting the US state of Hawaii.
However it says North Korea lacks the technology to launch a nuclear-tipped missile.
CIA Director Porter Goss told the US Congress last month that nuclear-armed North Korea could resume missile tests anytime and that it has active biological and chemical weapons programs.
The nuclear standoff erupted in October 2002 when the United States accused North Korea of operating a program based on highly enriched uranium.
Pyongyang denied that charge but restarted a plutonium-based program frozen under a 1994 arms control agreement.
The two Koreas, the United States, China, Japan and Russia, have met three times since 2003, with the last round held in June. North Korea boycotted a fourth round scheduled for last September, citing “hostile” US policy.