North Korea has stunned the United States by admitting it has a secret nuclear weapons programme, in violation of a 1994 agreement with the Clinton administration, a senior US official disclosed last night.
Pyongyang is also understood to have informed American diplomats that it no longer considers itself bound by the deal, which in essence traded US financial assistance for a promise by the North Korean regime to abandon its nuclear weapons programme and submit its nuclear facilities to international inspection.
The latest developments have come at an unexpected moment – just when North Korea, branded a member of the "axis of evil" by President George Bush along with Iraq and Iran, has been showing every sign of seeking rapprochement with its neighbours and the US.
Not only did the US recently seem to initiate a slight thaw in its ties with the reclusive regime by sending James Kelly, an assistant secretary of state, to Pyongyang for talks, the highest level contacts between the two countries since President Bush took office in January 2001. Mr Kelly demanded that the North reverse its previous refusal and admit nuclear inspectors. He is also understood to have cited evidence that North Korea may have a uranium-enrichment programme.
The apparent defiance by the North comes shortly after it admitted kidnapping Japanese nationals in the 1970s and 1980s. That was seen as a historic gesture to help mend fences with its traditional foe Japan, driven by North Korea's acute economic difficulties. Ties have also been improving with South Korea, which had been dismayed by the Bush administration's earlier hard line.
Now relations between Pyongyang and Washington are certain to chill. According to the official, the Bush administration has not yet decided how to respond. "We're going to keep talking," he said.
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