- The Washington Times - Monday, July 14, 2003

NEW YORK — A former United Nations nuclear weapons inspector who has visited North Korea’s main nuclear complex says he doubts recent reports that the communist state has reprocessed all of its 8,000 spent fuel rods.

If that major step toward producing plutonium, which is used to make atom bombs, has indeed been taken, “there is a risk that personnel and parts of the reprocessing facility could have been exposed to hazardous amounts of radiation,” said the inspector, who asked not to be named.

“It could be done if [the North Koreans] used shortcuts and wanted to risk [nuclear] contamination,” he said.

Separately, Chinese President Hu Jintao sent a letter directly to North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, sparking fresh speculation that Beijing is pushing the secretive North to drop its objections to multilateral talks over its nuclear programs.

A special envoy sent by Mr. Hu delivered the message, the North’s official KCNA news agency reported early today. Contents of the unusual letter were not disclosed, but China’s Xinhua news agency reported that the envoy and Mr. Kim had “an in-depth discussion of issues of mutual concern.”

The North has demanded direct bilateral talks with Washington over its nuclear programs, but the Bush administration has held out for a larger negotiation involving South Korea, Japan, China and possibly Russia.

South Korean media over the weekend quoted officials in Seoul as saying that the North told the United States in a July 8 meeting in New York that it had completed reprocessing all the spent rods. Later reports said there was no evidence it happened.

The State Department yesterday confirmed that the meeting in New York took place but declined to say whether such an assertion was made.

Also over the weekend, Japanese media quoted U.S. sources as saying that krypton, a byproduct of reprocessing, was detected near the nuclear plant at Yongbyon.

In March, North Korea said it had begun reprocessing the rods after reopening the Yongbyon complex earlier this year. In October, it admitted to having a secret uranium-enrichment program, in violation of a 1994 nuclear deal with the United States, known as the Agreed Framework.

The Bush administration has said that not every claim Pyongyang makes should be taken at face value, because there are no international inspectors currently in the North.

But the administration has warned that reprocessing the fuel rods would be a very serious development.

Meanwhile, the president of the U.N. Security Council said yesterday that Pyongyang has complained that the United States is committing hostile acts against it by pushing for a council measure condemning the North’s nuclear program.

The council president for July, Spain’s U.N. ambassador, Inocencio Arias, said North Korean Ambassador Pak Gil-yon delivered the message in a July 2 meeting.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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