SEOUL -- North Korea hinted yesterday that it may test a nuclear weapon in what would be a major escalation in the yearlong standoff with the United States and its allies over Pyongyang's nuclear ambitions.
The communist state, in comments attributed to a spokesman for its Foreign Ministry, said it would "open its nuclear deterrent to the public as a physical force."
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell reacted cautiously.
"They have said things like this before," Powell said yesterday in Washington. "I just don't know if they mean it."
Nevertheless, the remarks from Pyongyang were the strongest indication yet that North Korea, already suspected of building more bombs to add to its estimated arsenal of one or two bombs, would test a weapon to prove itself a nuclear power.
"Recently some people of the international community argued whether the DPRK possesses a nuclear deterrent force or not in an attempt to sound out its inmost thought," the spokesman said.
"When an appropriate time comes, the DPRK will take a measure to open its nuclear deterrent to the public as a physical force, and then there will be no need to have any more argument," the spokesman added. DPRK stands for Democratic People's Republic of Korea, the official name.
North Korean negotiators reportedly told US officials in Beijing in August that they would prove to the world that the country possesses nuclear weapons by testing a nuclear device, unless Washington makes diplomatic and economic concessions.
In early October, North Korea said it completed extracting plutonium from its 8,000 spent nuclear fuel rods and is using the material to build nuclear bombs.
Some US officials have questioned the North's claim, suggesting that North Korea might be bluffing to gain leverage in future talks with Washington. American intelligence officials, however, believe North Korea already has one or two nuclear bombs and may be building more.
When reprocessed, North Korea's pool of rods can yield enough plutonium to make four or five more bombs in a matter of months. More bombs could allow North Korea to test one.
For weeks, North Korea has said it was building up its "nuclear deterrent force," a term Pyongyang uses to refer to its nuclear weapons program. A North Korean diplomat said in early October that his country has no plan to export nuclear weapons.
North Korea said yesterday it had "no alternative but to take measures to maintain and increase its nuclear deterrent force as means for just self-defense."
It accused Washington of designating North Korea as a "target of its preemptive nuclear attack," after labeling it part of "an axis of evil" along with Iran and Iraq.
The announcement, carried by Pyongyang's state-run news agency KCNA, increased uncertainty on the Korean Peninsula.
President Roh Moo Hyun of South Korea, plagued by corruption scandals and plummeting approval ratings, is proposing a referendum in mid-December on whether he should step down. The turbulence at home will probably curtail the Roh government's ability to influence North Korea.
In Pyongyang, negotiators from North and South Korea failed yesterday to open a second day of Cabinet-level talks after the North refused to discuss the nuclear crisis. North Korea said a resolution on the nuclear dispute depends on the United States, and refused to discuss the matter with the South.
Representatives from the United States, the two Koreas, China, Japan, and Russia met in Beijing in August to discuss ways to end the nuclear crisis. But the meeting ended without agreement on when to hold a next round of talks because of strident differences between North Korea and the United States.