Tokyo North Korea declared Thursday that it had produced nuclear weapons to defend itself from the United States and had suspended participation in multinational talks to halt its arms program.
The announcement provoked calls by the Bush administration and its partners negotiating with North Korea for the resumption of six-party talks toward a peaceful resolution of the nuclear issue in the communist country.
While U.S. government analysts have said for some time that North Korea has the ability to produce nuclear devices, it is uncertain whether the Pyongyang government possesses such weapons or the ability to adapt them as warheads for its missile systems.
North Korea has used progressively more specific language, in public and in private, to describe the development of a "nuclear deterrent" since withdrawing from the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and expelling weapons inspectors in late 2002 in a feud with the United States.
But on Thursday, a statement by the government of the reclusive North Korean leader, Kim Jong Il, contained the most explicit wording yet. "In response to the Bush administration's increasingly hostile policy toward North Korea, we ... have manufactured nuclear weapons for self-defense," said the statement issued through the official Korean Central News Agency.
North Korea is now the eighth country with currently declared nuclear weapons. The others are the United States, Britain, France, China and Russia, all signatories of the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty, and India and Pakistan, which have not signed the treaty. Israel is considered by analysts to have nuclear weapons, but does not acknowledge so. South Africa built a bomb in the 1970s but later renounced its nuclear program.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, returning to the United States after a visit to Europe, called for a resumption of the six-party talks, which also include China, Japan, Russia and South Korea. "The North Koreans have been told by the president of the United States that the United States has no intention of attacking or invading North Korea," Rice said at a news conference in Luxembourg.
The White House played down the significance of the North Korean statement. "It's rhetoric we've heard before," press secretary Scott McClellan told reporters traveling with President Bush in North Carolina. "We remain committed to the six-party talks. We remain committed to a peaceful diplomatic resolution to the nuclear issue with regards to North Korea."
U.S. officials informed Asian allies last week that North Korea had reprocessed 8,000 spent fuel rods into weapons-grade plutonium and appeared to have exported nuclear material to Libya. The United States has estimated in the past that North Korea had produced enough nuclear material for six to eight devices.
Intelligence officials also have said that North Korea would have the capacity to produce up to six additional nuclear weapons yearly with a program in place to produce highly enriched uranium.
The North Korean statement criticized the Bush administration in harsh terms, saying U.S. statements calling for diplomacy were the "far-fetched logic of gangsters."
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, meeting with NATO ministers in Nice, France, expressed concern "if you believe them that they have weapons."
"Given they're a dictatorial regime and the repression of their own people, one has to worry about weapons of that power in the hands of leadership of that nature," Rumsfeld said.
Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov said at the same meeting that North Korea's withdrawal from the six-party talks "would be unsuitable."