Seoul says it doubts claim by North on nuclear armsSEOUL South Korea's unification minister, who oversees Seoul's policies toward North Korea, asserted Monday that it was doubtful that the North possessed nuclear weapons, as it has recently claimed, and he defended Seoul's policy of diplomatic engagement despite Pyongyang's insistence that it has withdrawn from six-party talks for an indefinite period.
Other government officials, meanwhile, said that Seoul's aid to the North would continue despite reports that the government here has come under pressure at home and abroad to withhold it.
"There is a difference between possessing nuclear weapons and claiming to possess nuclear weapons," the unification minister, Chung Dong Young, told the National Assembly on Monday. "I believe the true purpose of the North's announcement was to ask for its demands to be met, rather than to announce its possession of nuclear weapons."
"I believe it is early for us to call the North a nuclear state," when it has not been independently confirmed, Chung said in the same speech.
Subsequent to its statement Thursday, the North has repeated longstanding demands. Pyongyang's representative at the United Nations said in an interview with South Korea's leading leftist newspaper, published Friday, that it wanted bilateral talks with Washington. On Sunday, a senior party official said on Pyongyang radio that the withdrawal of troops on the peninsula would be a "practical measure in the withdrawal of the United States' hostile policy."
Neither demand is likely to be met. Both the U.S. and South Korean governments have said that the six-party talks are the only appropriate forum for negotiations on Pyongyang's nuclear weapons. And while U.S. troops in Korea are being downsized in the process of Washington's global realignment of forces, no pullout is contemplated.
Chung, who also heads the National Security Council, conceded that the North possessed the material for the production of weapons.
"There is no doubt that North Korea has 10 to 14 kilograms of plutonium, but there is no evidence that the North has turned it into plutonium bombs," he said.
Since the inter-Korean summit of 2000, the government has been reluctant to make any moves that might anger Pyongyang's and jeopardize Seoul's engagement process with the North, and Chung said North-South engagement policies should continue.
"We should maintain our policy of reconciliation and cooperation with North Korea despite fresh uncertainty over its nuclear program," he said.
President Roh Moo Hyun was briefed on Monday but has not made any official comment.
Separately, the government said it would continue humanitarian aid to the North. In Washington on Sunday, Foreign Minister Ban Ki Moon said, according to the Yonhap news agency, that Seoul would "continue to provide rice and fertilizer unless the situation deteriorates," and that work on the inter-Korean Gaeseong industrial complex would continue. He also rebutted U.S. news reports that said Vice President Dick Cheney had asked him to reconsider humanitarian aid.
South Korea has so far provided 1.55 million tons of fertilizer to the North. The North has requested 500,000 tons of fertilizer for this year; annual shipments have previously amounted to 300,000 tons.
The government faced criticism in the National Assembly for its intelligence shortcomings, notably its failure to foresee the North's announcement.