Shaking on it . . . China's Wen Jiabao

Shaking on it . . . China's Wen Jiabao with Kim Jong-Il. Photo: Reuters

SEOUL: North Korea is in the final stage of restoring its nuclear capabilities, and its armed forces are capable of carrying out 13 kinds of viral and bacterial attack, news reports that surfaced yesterday say.

The grim assessments came as the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-il, told the visiting Chinese Premier, Wen Jiabao, that his Government was ready to return to six-nation talks on its nuclear program - if it sees progress in bilateral talks with Washington.

In a detailed assessment of North Korea's biological weapons arsenal, reported in London's The Times, the South Korean Government said the North had cholera, yellow fever, smallpox, typhus, typhoid fever and dysentery among its biological agents. It also said the North had 5000 tonnes of chemical weapons, believed to include mustard gas, phosgene and sarin.

However, The Times reported that the South Korean Defence Minister, Kim Tae-young, believed his country's armed forces had the capacity to pre-emptively destroy about a hundred sites connected to the North's nuclear program in the event of an imminent attack.

The South Korean news agency Yonhap reported yesterday that North Korea was "close to completing" the restoration of its main nuclear plant in Yongbyon.

Yonhap cited an unidentified South Korean official as saying intelligence authorities in Seoul and Washington had reached the conclusion after scrutinising about 10 atomic facilities in North Korea.

In an angry reaction to United Nations sanctions imposed this year after a North Korean nuclear test, the North said it would restore Yongbyon, mothballed under a deal with Washington.

The complex is the North's only known source of weapons-grade plutonium. Along with its uranium enrichment program, the Yongbyon complex also serves as North Korea's main negotiating card as the regime has begun reaching out to the US for a new round of one-on-one talks.

Mr Kim's commitment to the Chinese Premier, who is on a highly publicised trip to Pyongyang, reverses North Korea's previous stance that the six-nation talks were "dead", and also clears a big hurdle for the US to engage with North Korea.

However, Mr Kim's insistence on bilateral talks with Washington reiterates the North's longstanding strategy of handling its nuclear dispute largely as a matter between it and the US. Washington said recently it was open to direct talks with the North to coax it back to six-party talks, which involve the two Koreas, China, Japan, Russia and the US.

Mr Kim's latest comments provide the clearest sign yet that Pyongyang is eager to return to the negotiating table.

But that process is bound to be complicated. North Korea has repeatedly used negotiations over ending its nuclear weapons program as a way of extracting aid and diplomatic concessions from the outside world.

China has offered an unspecified amount of aid to the North during Mr Wen's trip, KCNA, the North's official news agency, said.

The announcement of new details about the North's biological and chemical weapons program emphasised the hardline approach to its neighbour that the South is taking under its President, Lee Myung-bak.

Meanwhile, Kim Jong-un, the youngest son of Kim Jong-il, has been given a post in the ruling communist party to prepare him for eventual succession, a South Korean MP was quoted as saying yesterday