North Korea threatened during recent talks in Beijing to export nuclear arms or add to its arsenal, in addition to saying it will test an atomic bomb, The Washington Times has learned.
North Korea's negotiator in the talks, Li Gun, made the threat during an "aside" session with Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly, said U.S. officials familiar with the closed-door meeting in Beijing.
"This was clearly a threat," said one official familiar with reports of the three-way talks among the United States, North Korea and China.
Additionally, the North Koreans said at the talks that they have nearly finished reprocessing the 8,000 spent fuel rods that were supposed to be kept in storage under a 1994 agreement with the United States.
Mr. Li, a North Korean Foreign Ministry official, told Mr. Kelly during the side meeting that Pyongyang will "export nuclear weapons, add to its current arsenal or test a nuclear device," one administration official said.
North Korea is considered to be a major supplier of missiles and other weapons to rogue states and unstable regions. U.S. officials said they do not doubt that North Korea would export nuclear weapons or technology.
North Korea is believed to have two or three nuclear devices and could make five or six more from the 8,000 spent fuel rods that had been in storage until October.
The North Korean diplomat said the course that Pyongyang follows will be directly related to how the United States responds to its overtures. Mr. Kelly rejected the words as a threat and thus unacceptable as a means of resolving the nuclear crisis, the officials said.
Officials said the assertion of reprocessing work was either a lie by the North Koreans or it represents a failure of U.S. intelligence, which previously had concluded that North Korea had not begun the reprocessing work at the nuclear complex in Yongbyon.
The CIA and other U.S. intelligence agencies are conducting a review of the matter to see whether they missed any North Korean reprocessing.
The fuel reprocessing is considered a key indicator of the seriousness of any move by Pyongyang away from its international obligations not to build more nuclear arms.
However, one official said the CIA has already changed its assessment that North Korea has not reprocessed any spent fuel. The new CIA assessment is that some reprocessing may have taken place, this official said.
During the April 23-24 talks in Beijing, North Korea also attempted to initiate bilateral talks with the United States, but the United States rejected the attempt, officials said on the condition of anonymity.
Mr. Kelly had argued in favor of holding the two-way talks, but National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice rejected his request April 24.
The talks in China included U.S., Chinese and North Korean officials but excluded representatives from South Korea and Japan.
The talks ended with little progress toward resolving the standoff over North Korea's renewed effort to build nuclear weapons. The crisis began in October, when North Korea revealed that it had a secret uranium-based nuclear-arms program, in addition to the plutonium program that was supposed to have been frozen since 1994.
Senior Bush administration officials have met twice since the Beijing talks to decide how to proceed. The administration is debating whether to demand that any future talks with the North Koreans and Chinese include officials from Japan and South Korea.
North Korea in the past has refused to hold any talks with Japan or South Korea but agreed to allow its key economic ally, China, to take part.
The Chinese government said it did not know of the North Korean statement about exporting nuclear arms or building up its arsenal because the discussion took place on the sidelines of the formal talks and therefore was not part of the official negotiations, the officials said.
The Bush administration has said that it will not be pressured into negotiating any new agreements with Pyongyang's reclusive communist government.
Mr. Li also stated during the meeting in Beijing that North Korea's nuclear weapons are so large that it would be difficult to dismantle them, the officials said.
North Korea is demanding that the United States sign a nonaggression treaty and provide assurances that aid from Japan and other countries will not be cut off.
South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun will discuss North Korea's nuclear program in talks with President Bush set for May 14 in Washington.
The Bush administration has said that it hopes to resolve the North Korean nuclear crisis through diplomacy. However, the administration has not said how it will deal with the matter if diplomacy fails.
"If diplomacy fails, there are two alternatives," one official said. "Either you allow North Korea to remain a nuclear power or you exercise the military option."
The possibility of North Korea selling nuclear weapons and material was discussed last week by Mr. Bush and Australian Prime Minister John Howard, officials said.
The discussion was based on North Korea's statement at the Beijing talks, they said.
On Sunday, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said the United States would not be pressured by North Korea.
"We will not be blackmailed. We will not be intimidated," Mr. Powell said on NBC's "Meet the Press."
"Their nuclear weapons are not going to purchase them any political standing that will cause us to be frightened or to think that somehow we now have to march to their tune," he said.
Asked whether the United States would permit North Korea to export nuclear arms, Mr. Powell said, "Absolutely not."
Mr. Powell said U.S. intelligence cannot confirm the North Korean assertion about reprocessing the spent fuel rods into plutonium for weapons, but he noted, "That's what they say."
"And what they have gotten in response to these statements is nothing from us except condemnation," Mr. Powell said.