WASHINGTON (AP) _ The general in charge of U.S. forces in South Korea said Tuesday that North Korea could become a ``moderate nuclear power'' by 2010 if current disarmament negotiations fail.
Separately, a former Bush administration anti-proliferation official said the United States might be extending the longevity of what he called the most repressive regime in the world by making deals with the North Koreans.
U.S. Army Gen. B.B. Bell told lawmakers that North Korea will continue to develop nuclear weapons barring a breakthrough by five nations pressing the North to abandon its atomic bombs. He said North Korea, which tested a nuclear device last year, may now have as much as 110 pounds of plutonium, enough to produce up to seven nuclear weapons, analysts say.
Leader Kim Jong Il's government, Bell told the Senate Armed Services Committee, views its ballistic missile program as a source of international prestige and regional influence, a deterrent against attack and a means of generating money from exports.
As a result, he said in testimony, the North continues to produce missiles ``and may ultimately aim to develop nuclear armed missiles to threaten regional countries and even the U.S.''
North Korea pledged in February to begin abandoning its nuclear program in return for energy aid and political concessions, but it missed an April 14 deadline to shut down its nuclear reactor. The North has refused to act until it receives $25 million in cash frozen after a Macau bank, Banco Delta Asia, was blacklisted by the United States for allegedly helping the North with money laundering and counterfeiting.
The funds have been freed for withdrawal, but for unknown reasons the North has not yet acted to recover the money.
Bell said the North is not experienced in international banking and should be given more time to figure out how to access its money. He described himself as cautiously optimistic that North Korea would fulfill its February pledge.
South Korea's envoy at international nuclear talks, Chun Yung-woo, said Monday in Washington that the United States and South Korea are frustrated with North Korea's failure to meet nuclear disarmament obligations but are willing to give the North more time to act.
Elsewhere, the U.S. ambassador to South Korea, Alexander Vershbow, urged North Korea to carry out its pledge. Only then, he said, would North Korea receive a promised shipment of fuel oil.
South Korean Unification Minister Lee Jae-joung warned Monday that delivery of shipments of rice to the North depended upon North Korea's fulfilling its commitment to shut down its main Yongbyon reactor.
Vershbow said the United States did not advocate the use of food as a weapon, but he said such threats had influenced North Korea to negotiate on its weapons program.
Also Tuesday, Robert Joseph, the State Department's senior arms control official until last month, said the United States could be prolonging the life of the regime in Pyongyang as North Korean leaders pretend to give up their nuclear weapons in exchange for energy aid.
Speaking at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, Joseph urged the five nations to hold back concessions until the North fully and irreversibly dismantles its nuclear program.
Calling North Korea ``the most repressive, the most totalitarian government on the face of the earth,'' Joseph said North Korea recognizes that joining the international community would mean the end of the regime's absolute power over its people.