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"WASHINGTON (Oct. 17) - The United States and South Korea, stung by North Korea's admission that it has a secret nuclear weapons program, are calling on Pyongyang to reverse course and abide by promises to renounce development of these armaments.
The startling disclosure, announced Wednesday night by the White House, changed the political landscape in East Asia, setting back hopes that North Korea was on the road to becoming a more benign presence in the region.
Japan expressed ``grave concern'' about the North Korea's nuclear revelation.
The disclosure adds to the administration's list of foreign policy headaches, coming on top of a possible U.S. attack on Iraq and the overall U.S. war on terrorism.
Any administration inclination to try to confront North Korea, which President Bush has labeled as part of an ``axis of evil'' with Iraq and Iran, could be tempered by a desire not to become overextended internationally.
Presidential spokesman Sean McCormack said North Korea was guilty of a serious infringement of a 1994 agreement with the United States under which Pyongyang promised to be nuclear-free in return for economic assistance.
``The United States and our allies call on North Korea to comply with its commitments under the nonproliferation treaty and to eliminate its nuclear weapons program in a verifiable manner,'' McCormack said.
U.S. officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said North Korea told U.S. diplomats that it was no longer bound by the anti-nuclear agreement.
In Seoul, South Korean Deputy Foreign Minister Lee Tae-sik, said South Korea has consistently pursued the de-nuclearization of the Korean peninsula in line with international agreements. Japan and South Korea are treaty allies of the United States.
``We urge North Korea to abide by its obligations,'' he said.
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said late Wednesday the United States had been ready to offer North Korea economic and other benefits if Pyongyang agreed to curb missile programs, end threats and change its behavior in other ways.
``In light of our concerns about the North's nuclear weapons program, however, we are unable to pursue this approach,'' Boucher said.
For a time, North Korea had seemed ready to shed Bush's ``axis of evil'' designation. Pyongyang was carrying out capitalist reforms and reaching out to both Japan and South Korea. It also resumed talks with the United States earlier this month.
It is not clear what steps the Bush administration may have in mind now for North Korea.
Also unclear is just how far along the North Korean nuclear program is.
As McCormack made the announcement, Undersecretary of State John Bolton was flying to East Asia to consult with allies on the changed situation.
William Triplett, a defense writer and East Asia expert, said the North Korean admission means Pyongyang now has or will soon have the ability to export nuclear warheads along with the long-range missiles it is already exporting to the Middle East and South Asia.
The new development is certain to have an impact in Japan, which may now feel vulnerable to potential nuclear blackmail by North Korea. There may also be increased challenges in Japan to the country's postwar commitment to pacifism.
Political tremors also are likely in South Korea, where President Kim Dae-jung's rule is best known for his incessant search for a more amicable relationship with his neighbor.
North Korea is certain to be a major element in political campaigning in South Korea for December presidential elections.
Under the 1994 agreement, in return for renouncing nuclear weapons, Pyongyang was to receive two light water nuclear reactors to replace the country's plutonoium-producing reactors.
Groundbreaking for the new reactors, which were supposed to have been completed by 2003, just took place in August, with a State Department official on hand.
The two countries had just resumed high-level security talks less than two weeks ago for the first time since October 2000. It was during those discussions that North Korea informed the United States of its nuclear activities.
The United States has been suspicious about North Korea's nuclear intentions for some time despite the 1994 agreement. A CIA report in January said that during the second half of last year, North Korea ``continued its attempts to procure technology worldwide that could have applications in its nuclear program.''
``We assess that North Korea has produced enough plutonium for at least one, and possibly two, nuclear weapons.''
That has been a U.S. concern dating from before the 1994 agreement. International inspections were supposed to clear up that mystery but the North never permitted them despite a commitment to do so.
The North Korean revelations apparently refer to more recent nuclear development activities, possibly encompassing the period when former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright visited Pyongyang in October 2000. President Clinton thought seriously about making a visit as well before leaving office.
North Korea may have foreshadowed the sudden souring of relations 10 days ago when, after Kelly's departure, it called the U.S. diplomat ``high-handed and arrogant.''
It also vowed to maintain a high military vigilance unless Washington changes its policy."