- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 19, 2003

A North Korean statement that it had begun reprocessing 8,000 spent nuclear fuel rods sent the Bush administration scrambling to figure out what the isolated communist regime really meant.
Initially, some U.S. officials said the statement was a dramatic escalation of the nuclear issue and had jeopardized talks with the North, slated to begin in Beijing next week. Others said nothing had changed.
By last night, U.S. officials were saying that North Korea had simply erred in its own English translation of a statement carried by the official KCNA news agency.
"As we have already declared, we are successfully reprocessing more than 8,000 spent fuel rods at the final phase, as we sent interim information to the U.S. and other countries concerned early in March after resuming our nuclear activities from December last year," said a statement in English by a North Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman carried by KCNA.
Had North Korea started reprocessing the fuel rods, which contain enough plutonium for a half-dozen atom bombs, or was it simply repeating a threat to do so a threat it has made on several occasions in recent months?
"Frankly, it's not clear exactly what [the statement] means," said State Department spokesman Richard Boucher.
"There is some imprecision in the language about the status of the reprocessing. We are evaluating the statement. We are consulting with others who may be interested. There is nothing new to say about the talks."
A White House spokeswoman, Claire Buchan, said that the United States is discussing with Seoul, Beijing and Tokyo "where we go from here."
"Once we have a clear sense of the facts and the views of our friends and allies, we'll make a decision about how to proceed," she told reporters in Crawford, Texas, where President Bush is spending the Easter weekend.
A spokeswoman for South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun said last night that the talks in Beijing should proceed as planned.
Adding to Pyongyang's mixed signals was an offer today to South Korea to resume high-level talks, just a week after the North abruptly canceled such a meeting.
U.S. officials said speakers of Korean detected a certain confusion in the verb tense used in the North's statement on the fuel rods.
"It's not clear whether it indicates that it has begun, will begin or might begin or whatever," a senior State Department official said.
U.S. intelligence officials believe that the North could produce up to half a dozen nuclear weapons within six to eight months of beginning to reprocess the fuel rods, which were put into storage as part of a now-defunct 1994 agreement.
Although the KCNA itself put out its own English translation, U.S. government experts said a more precise translation would be, "We are successfully completing the final phase to the point of the reprocessing operation for some 8,000 spent fuel rods."
A nuclear crisis erupted in October, when the United States said North Korea had admitted to having a secret nuclear-weapons program in violation of the 1994 agreement.
The United States then stopped shipments of fuel oil to the North, and the North withdrew from the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, kicked out inspectors from the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency and restarted a nuclear reactor.
Mr. Boucher said the administration "would regard reprocessing of spent fuel to extract plutonium as an extremely serious matter."
With the U.N. inspectors gone, the means for acquiring information about the situation on the ground are limited, officials said.
Mr. Boucher noted that North Korea's statement said it expected to begin talks with the United States "shortly," an apparent reference to the Beijing talks next week.
James Kelly, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, is to lead the U.S. delegation in Beijing, where China has agreed to host the first face-to-face U.S.-North Korean negotiations in six months.
Mr. Kelly held previously scheduled meetings yesterday with visiting Japanese and South Korean officials.
No decision on whether to go ahead with the Beijing talks was announced last night.
Instead, the Bush administration appeared embroiled in yet another internal battle over how to treat the reclusive regime of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il.
Different administration officials began calling reporters yesterday with reactions usually on the condition of anonymity to Pyongyang's statement.
Administration hawks said the North's statement had thrown the Beijing talks into jeopardy and suggested that they would be postponed. The doves insisted the meeting would go ahead as planned.
The talks were expected to begin as early as Wednesday and run for three days.
The State Department said the U.S. goal in engaging with the North is to discuss how it can "verifiably" suspend its nuclear-weapons program.
But officials acknowledged that the North Koreans will have their own agenda. One item on that agenda has been the demand by Pyongyang for a nonaggression pact with the United States.

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