North Korea said on Tuesday it may increase its nuclear arsenal to maintain a balance of power in East Asia and help prevent a U.S. attack on the reclusive communist state.
Pyongyang’s latest statement comes as Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice leaves for Asia to push for a resumption of stalled six-party talks aimed at curbing the North’s nuclear ambitions. Bush administration officials have repeatedly said the United States has no intention of invading North Korea.
“The DPRK will take necessary counter-measures, including bolstering of its nuclear arsenal, to cope with the extremely hostile attempt of the U.S. to bring down the system in the DPRK,” said a North Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman quoted by the official KCNA news agency.
DPRK is short for the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, the state’s official name.
“The reality testifies to the fact that the DPRK’s nuclear weapons serve as a powerful deterrent to keep the equilibrium of forces in the region, avert a new war and ensure peace,” the spokesman said.
The comments came at the end of a long critique of annual U.S.-South Korean joint military training exercises, which the North routinely condemns each time they are held.
Russia’s Itar-Tass news agency reported, meanwhile, that North Korea would hold civil defense drills across the country in response to the joint maneuveres, which begin on Saturday. It quoted an informed source in Pyongyang.
Renewed regional security concerns spooked investors on Tuesday, contributing to a 2.6 percent tumble in South Korean shares, the biggest fall in almost five months.
North Korea officially declared last month for the first time that it had nuclear weapons. It said it needed them to counter what it called Washington’s hostile policies.
Proliferation experts said the North may have one or two nuclear weapons, and could possibly have eight or more.
CALLING ON CHINA
When Pyongyang made its nuclear boast on Feb. 10, it also said it was pulling out of the disarmament talks. It later hinted at a return to the negotiating table if the conditions were right and the United States showed what it called “sincerity.”
China is the communist North’s main benefactor and its sole remaining major ally, but is believed to be increasingly impatient over signs that Pyongyang is dragging its heels over the six-party talks.
Since August 2003, Beijing has hosted three inconclusive rounds of talks involving the two Koreas, the United States, China, Japan and Russia. A fourth round planned for late 2004 never materialized.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao said North Korean Premier Pak Pong-ju would visit China from March 22 to 27. Although Pak is considered an economics expert, Liu said he expects Pak and Chinese officials to discuss nuclear issues.
Pak appears to be taking on an increasingly high profile in the secretive state, North Korea analysts said. He was reported to have accompanied the North’s leader, Kim Jong-il, on a recent visit to the Russian embassy in Pyongyang.
SINCERITY AND SMOKE SCREENS
In an interview last Friday with Reuters, Secretary of State Rice said Pyongyang was throwing up “smoke screens” in its continued refusal to return to the six-way talks.
“Let’s be realistic here. This isn’t an issue of what we say or what we don’t say. This is an issue of whether the North Koreans come to the table prepared to make a strategic choice” to give up their nuclear activities, she said.
Rice said she would discuss with Chinese, South Korean and Japanese officials “what other steps need to be taken” to deal with the nuclear issue but gave no details.
There has been a flurry of diplomatic activity in the weeks leading up to Rice’s visit to Asia, as negotiators to the nuclear talks and other government officials shuttled between meetings in an attempt to coax the North back to the table.
South Korea’s Defense Ministry said minister Yoon Kwang-ung would visit China from March 30 to April 2 for talks with Chinese officials. They would discuss the North’s nuclear weapons programs and bilateral military cooperation.