N. Korea Reiterates Plans for Fuel Rods; Starts Talks Vowing Reprocessing Work

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North Korea opened a meeting with U.S. and Chinese officials in Beijing yesterday with a tough reiteration of its plans to reprocess spent nuclear fuel rods now in storage.

U.S. intelligence agencies, however, have not confirmed that the North Koreans have begun reprocessing about 8,000 spent fuel rods that were supposed to remain in storage under a 1994 agreement with the United States.

Bush administration officials told The Washington Times that the North Korean official in charge of the talks, Ri Gun, who is the Foreign Ministry deputy director for American affairs, opened the talks by telling the U.S. delegation about the reprocessing.

The North Koreans "made it clear they are moving ahead with reprocessing," said one official familiar with intelligence reports of the opening session of the talks in Beijing.

Another official said trucks have been spotted recently at the fuel rod storage facility at North Korea's nuclear complex at Yongbyon, which could indicate movement to a reprocessing facility at the same site. No reprocessing, however, has been detected, the official said.A National Security Council spokesman did not comment.

The issue of reprocessing the spent fuel rods, which yields weapons-grade plutonium, is viewed as the critical "point of no return" in effective efforts to prevent North Korea from building nuclear weapons.

The North Korean statement in Beijing is the latest twist in a confusing series of remarks by Pyongyang on the nuclear reprocessing.

The official Korean Central News Agency stated Friday that the communist government was "successfully reprocessing" the nuclear rods. Three days later, a different English translation of the official statement said that North Korea is "successfully going forward to reprocess work" on the rods.

The statement initially had been read by some U.S. administration officials as a sharp escalation of the nuclear crisis. The declaration at the closed-door Beijing meeting was a reiteration of Monday's translation.

In Tokyo, a visiting Russian Foreign Ministry official said the U.S.-North Korean nuclear standoff has been "pushed to the limit."

"It is probable that as early as tomorrow events may take a disastrous course," Alexander Losyukov told reporters after meeting Japanese officials.

The U.S. delegation to the talks is led by James Kelly, assistant secretary of state for East Asia and Pacific affairs, and the Chinese side is led by Foreign Ministry official Fu Ying.

Mr. Kelly urged the North Koreans to adhere to the provisions of the 1994 Agreed Framework and to follow other agreements aimed at limiting nuclear weapons development, said officials familiar with the talks.

The 1994 agreement required North Korea to freeze its nuclear program in exchange for Western help in meeting its fuel needs, including shipments of fuel oil and the construction of two light-water nuclear reactors that generate electricity but are less useful in nuclear-arms production.

Officials said it is not clear whether the North Korean statement on the fuel rods is an opening negotiating ploy or whether Pyongyang is indeed taking steps to reprocess the rods.

U.S. intelligence agencies are closely monitoring a five-megawatt reactor at Yongbyon. Special nuclear "sniffer" aircraft have conducted flights to try to detect any nuclear activity there. …