North Korea said to have centrifuges

North Korea has been developing nuclear weapons since around 1997 by procuring several hundred centrifuges on several occasions to enrich uranium, diplomatic sources said Sunday.

“It is likely that the number of the centrifugal machines procured by Pyongyang may be more than 1,000,” they said.

But the sources also believe Pyongyang does not have nuclear weapons at this time. They said the machines have not been used and North Korea would need several more years to complete work on nuclear weapons even if it starts using the machines soon.

The procurement nonetheless indicates a violation of a 1994 U.S.-North Korea accord, under which Pyongyang was to freeze and dismantle its graphite-moderated nuclear reactors in exchange for two light-water reactors to be built with Washington’s help.

Given the development, Tokyo will inevitably be forced to urge North Korea to follow the accord at upcoming talks to normalize bilateral relations in Kuala Lumpur later this month, analysts said.

On Sunday evening, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda met with James Kelly, U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, in Tokyo, according to Japanese government officials.

Though the results of their talks were not immediately known, the two officials were expected to agree that Japan, the United States and South Korea need to jointly urge Pyongyang to suspend its nuclear programs, the officials said.

They were also expected to exchange views on diplomatic policies for North Korea ahead of the upcoming summit talks in Mexico between Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, South Korean President Kim Dae Jung and U.S. President George W. Bush.

On Saturday, Kelly said at a news conference in Seoul that the U.S. would lead a drive with such allies as South Korea and Japan to exert “maximum international pressure” on the North to abandon its nuclear-weapons development program.

“We are watching very closely to see if North Korea takes the actions we and the international community are demanding to immediately and visibly end this nuclear weapons program and abide by international commitments,” he said.

Meanwhile, Hidenao Nakagawa, chairman of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s Diet Affairs, said that Pyongyang hinted in January 2001 it would allow Japanese nationals it had abducted in the 1970s and 1980s to return to Japan permanently.

Nakagawa told reporters in Tokyo that North Korean First Vice Foreign Minister Kang Sok Ju told him of Pyongyang’s intentions during a secret meeting in Singapore.

“We can find and return (the abductees to Japan),” Nakagawa quoted Kang as saying at the meeting.

Nakagawa said the two disagreed about what to call the people in question, with Japan insisting they were abductees and North Korea arguing they were “missing persons.”

Nakagawa also said he believes Kang tacitly admitted to the abductions at that time by saying, “If Japan makes up its mind to liquidate the past, we will take action right away.”

North Korea was referring to its long-standing demand for an apology and compensation for Japan’s 1910-1945 colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula.

Also discussed in the secret meeting were the issues of North Korean spy ships off the Japanese coastline and North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. The communist country told Japan it would no longer engage in such activities or threaten Japan if Japan acceded to North Korea’s requests, Nakagawa said.

On Sept. 3 of this year, former Prime Minister Yoshiro Mori revealed the secret talks between Nakagawa and Kang, which occurred following a North Korean request for a summit meeting between North Korean leader Kim Jong Il and Mori.