- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 20, 2003

From combined dispatches
SEOUL North Korea indicated yesterday it is ready for talks on its suspected nuclear program after confusion over whether it had tried to scuttle negotiations by saying it was reprocessing fuel rods to make nuclear bombs.
The North also made a conciliatory gesture toward South Korea yesterday, proposing Cabinet-level talks after canceling a similar meeting last week.
The United States said an English-language statement on Friday from the North Korean Foreign Ministry might have been mistranslated to say Pyongyang was reprocessing the 8,000 nuclear rods rather than on the verge of reprocessing them.
A Korean-language version published by South Korean media said the North had "advanced the project to the final stage" before reprocessing.
Intelligence experts say reprocessing spent fuel rods would enable North Korea to yield enough plutonium to build several nuclear bombs within months. Washington believes Pyongyang already has one or two bombs.
Reprocessing would be the most provocative step North Korea has taken since the dispute flared in October, when Washington said Pyongyang had admitted a covert nuclear program.
North Korea has denied making such an admission.
"As far as I know, there is no change in the plans for the talks to take place in Beijing next week," said Lee Ji-hyun, South Korean presidential spokeswoman for foreign media.
South Korea is not included in the planned three-way talks in Beijing between the United States, China and the communist North, but has a major stake in the outcome on the divided peninsula.
North Korea's KCNA news agency said Jo Myong-rok, first vice chairman of the National Defense Commission headed by leader Kim Jong-il, would visit Beijing from April 21 to 23.
Its one-sentence report did not say whether Mr. Jo, the military No. 2 to Mr. Kim, would prepare for the three-way talks or explain the reprocessing.
But the South's Yonhap news agency quoted Chinese sources as saying his trip was aimed at fine-tuning its stance in the talks with China.
Mr. Jo visited Washington in October 2000, the most senior Pyongyang official to do so.
In Washington, U.S. officials indicated the United States might cancel the talks, but South Korean media quoted others as saying they were likely to go ahead.
Yonhap said Japan and South Korea had urged U.S. officials to go on with the talks, expected to start on April 23.
"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," White House spokeswoman Claire Buchan told the Associated Press.
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Friday he had "nothing new to say about the talks one way or the other." However, he recalled that Washington said it would regard any move by Pyongyang to reprocess spent fuel rods "as a very serious matter."
In a further sign Pyongyang wants to engage the outside world, albeit for different reasons, Seoul said the North had proposed holding bilateral ministerial talks on April 27-29.
Pyongyang canceled previously scheduled Cabinet-level talks with Seoul on economic and other matters after the South decided to send noncombat troops to help in the U.S.-led war in Iraq.
"The North sent us this morning a telegram, saying it wants ministerial talks in Pyongyang," the South Korean Unification Ministry said. KCNA said it proposed the talks to "settle the issue of inter-Korean relations through national cooperation."
A ministry spokesman told Reuters news agency the South would "positively consider accepting." An official reply was likely next week.
In a message carried by KCNA, a Pyongyang official stressed "the need to resourcefully settle the issue of inter-Korean relations by the nation itself through national cooperation."
North Korea often has tried to drive a wedge between South Korea and its chief ally, the United States, by dealing with the two nations separately and saying only Koreans can resolve tensions on the peninsula. There are 37,000 U.S. soldiers based in South Korea, and Seoul keeps close ties with the United States, though Washington tends to take a tougher line on North Korea.
In Seoul yesterday, hundreds of demonstrators chanted slogans supporting the United States and destroyed an effigy of North Korea's late leader, Kim Il-sung.
At one point, the demonstrators mimicked Iraqis who toppled a Baghdad statue of Saddam Hussein on April 11 by tearing down a 6-foot-high cutout of Mr. Kim and dragging it along the streets.


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