Seoul, Feb. 10 (Reuters): North Korea declared today for the first time it possessed nuclear weapons and pulled out indefinitely from six-party talks on its atomic ambitions, saying it needed a defence against a hostile US.
US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice played down the dramatic announcement, saying the United States had assumed since the mid-1990s that North Korea could make nuclear weapons.
But she said North Korea would only deepen its own isolation, and forego international security guarantees if it pulled out of six-party talks on its nuclear programme.
Britain said it deplored the north's announcement, which comes as some of the world's largest military powers have been trying to coax the reclusive communist government to return to the stalled disarmament talks.
'We... have manufactured nukes to cope with the Bush administration's evermore undisguised policy to isolate and stifle the DPRK,' the foreign ministry said in a statement carried by the official Korean Central News Agency.
DPRK is short for the north's official name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. 'Nuclear weapons will remain (a) nuclear deterrent for self-defence under any circumstances,' the ministry said. The statement marks the first time the north has publicly said it has nuclear weapons and is Pyongyang's first response to resuming six-party talks since President George W. Bush said in his inauguration speech on January 20 that he was committed to ending tyranny.
While Bush did not specify countries in his address last month, Rice has singled out North Korea as one of six tyrannical regimes.
The statement also poses a challenge to Bush, who has long backed a diplomatic solution to the crisis but now faces two nations he once named as part of an 'axis of evil' being openly defiant about their nuclear programmes ' North Korea and Iran. He went to war with the third axis nation, Iraq.
UN secretary-general Kofi Annan said today he believed North Korea could be brought back to the negotiating table, while Russia's foreign ministry said it regretted the north's declaration of intent to build up its nuclear arsenal and halt its participation in the six-way dialogue.
Neighbouring South Korea and Japan responded swiftly to the north's move to raise the stakes in a crisis that has engulfed North Asia for more than two years, urging it to abandon its nuclear programmes.
'We express our grave concern over North Korea's comment on its possessing nuclear weapons and we make it clear again that we won't tolerate north's nuclear weapons,' a South Korean foreign ministry spokesman said.
Rice, speaking in Luxembourg, said the US had no intention of attacking or invading North Korea and said she hoped the talks, which also involve South Korea, China, Japan and Russia, would resume soon.
'The fact of the matter is that the world has given them a way out and they should take that way out,' she said.
Nuclear proliferation experts said North Korea has likely produced enough plutonium for a small number of weapons but no one can say for certain if the north has the ability to assemble and deliver a nuclear bomb.