updated 1/15/2004 7:00:33 PM ET 2004-01-16T00:00:33

North Korean officials told a U.S. expert on Korea that they see no urgency in ending the impasse over its nuclear weapons programs because delays will give the country more time to expand its nuclear arsenal.

Charles Pritchard, a former State Department official, met with the North Koreans last week as part of a private visit that included a trip with American colleagues to the country’s main nuclear site at Yongbyon, north of Pyongyang.

Pritchard said he was told by North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye Gwan: “Time is not on the U.S. side. Lapses of time will result in quantitative and qualitative increases in our nuclear deterrent.”

He said Kim, during their nine-hour discussion, also denied that North Korea is pursuing a uranium bomb, contradicting U.S. intelligence and Pyongyang’s own admissions to U.S. officials — Pritchard included — in October 2002.

The former official said the North Korean denial could pose a major problem for the Bush administration as it seeks the complete dismantling of the country’s nuclear weapons programs.

“I heard what I heard,” said Pritchard, alluding to the North Korean statements to a U.S. delegation 15 months ago. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said, “They admitted it.”

Pritchard left the State Department last summer and is now a scholar at the Brookings Institution, where a large gathering turned out to hear about his visit to the reclusive communist state.

The former official, who had visited North Korea previously, said he found evidence of improved living conditions, including a sharp increase in vehicular traffic and increased availability of electricity and consumer goods.

Economic collapse ‘not going to happen’
He debunked the notion among some that the country could collapse because of economic decline.

“Don’t wait,” he said. “It’s not going to happen.”

He declined to discuss what he saw at Yongbyon, contending that he played the role of “bystander,” leaving the analysis of what he saw to U.S. nuclear experts in the delegation.

“We saw some things. We did not see some things,” Pritchard said of the Yongbyon visit.

He said Siegfried Hecker, a former director of the nuclear research laboratory at Los Alamos, N.M., will brief Congress next week on the technical aspects of the visit to the site.

Republican aide Keith Luse and Democratic colleague Frank Jannuzi, both staffers for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, also visited North Korea last week.

The visit by the delegations did not have administration sanction but officials have spoken with participants about their findings.

U.S. concerns
The main administration focus has been on reconvening six-party talks aimed at resolving the North Korean impasse, perhaps the most dangerous international situation the United States faces these days.

The United States believes North Korea already has one or more plutonium-based nuclear weapons and is concerned that, left unchecked, the country could develop many more, giving it the potential to blackmail adversaries or export its nuclear technology.

Pritchard said Kim told him North Korea was willing to dispose of its nuclear arsenal. As for the disagreement over the uranium bomb, Kim, in effect, said it was difficult for Pyongyang to prove a negative, according to Pritchard.

Besides the United States and North Korea, other participants in the six-nation process are South Korea, China, Japan and Russia.

The six met in Beijing in August but have been unable to agree on ground rules for a follow-up meeting. Boucher said Thursday those efforts continue.

“We are working toward the goal of early discussions,” he said.

The payoff for disarmament
In exchange for nuclear disarmament, North Korea would receive security assurances and economic benefits.

On Dec. 9, North Korea offered a nuclear freeze — a move, Pritchard was told, that was designed to “get things moving on the diplomatic front.”

He said Kim said North Korea wants the United States to remove it from the terrorism list, to lift remaining sanctions and to resume fuel deliveries that Washington suspended a year ago.

The United States had been providing 500,000 metric tons of heavy fuel a year to North Korea as part of a 1994 deal linked to a pledge by Pyongyang to forgo nuclear weapons.

In October 2002, the Bush administration accused North Korea of reneging on the deal, leading to the current impasse.

© 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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