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North Korea claims plutonium ‘weaponized’

BEIJING – North Korean officials claim they have “weaponized” their stockpile of plutonium, a U.S. scholar said Saturday, in a development that could severely complicate talks to end the regime’s nuclear weapons program.

Selig Harrison, speaking to reporters after he arrived in Beijing from Pyongyang, the North Korean capital, said the North Koreans had hardened their negotiating positions considerably and that the prospects for President-elect Barack Obama to make a breakthrough in negotiations were “gloomy.”

North Korea’s belligerent mood was underscored by a fresh threat Saturday against South Korea.

A North Korean army spokesman warned in a statement delivered over the official media that South Korean President Lee Myung-bak and his “puppet military war hawks” had “driven our revolutionary armed forces to take a strong step to wipe them out.”

The North’s blustery propaganda machine issues so many threats that normally they are shrugged off, but this one was unusual in that it came directly from the army, which usually does not issue statements.

Harrison believes that hard-liners within the North Korean military have strengthened their hand recently because of the poor health of leader Kim Jong Il. The 68-year-old leader is reported to be recovering from a stroke suffered last summer.

“He is now making the key decisions, but he is not dealing on a day-to-day basis with details,” Harrison said.

Harrison is a former journalist who has been used by Pyongyang to relay messages to Washington, D.C.

Among the officials Harrison met with over four days in Pyongyang were Li Gun, a senior Foreign Ministry official, and Ri Chan-bok, a general and spokesman for the military.

The North Koreans told him that they had “weaponized” their stockpile of 67.8 pounds of plutonium. The amount of plutonium is sufficient to build four or five nuclear warheads to be mounted on missiles.

“The North Koreans are saying in effect that, ‘We are a nuclear weapons state and you have to deal with us on that basis,’ ” Harrison said.

The North Koreans also told him that they wouldn’t consider dismantling their nuclear program until after the U.S. normalized diplomatic relations.

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