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North Korea Says Fuel Rods Processed for Nuclear Bombs

A statement issued by the North Korean Foreign Ministry said it would continue to pursue its nuclear program because of the “hostile policy” of the United States toward the communist North.

“(North Korea) successfully finished the reprocessing of some 8,000 spent fuel rods,” said the statement, published by the official KCNA news agency.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said Thursday the United States has no evidence North Korea has reprocessed the spent nuclear fuel rods.

“This is the third time they have told us they have just finished reprocessing the rods. We have no evidence to confirm that,” Powell said at a news briefing.

Pyongyang has pointed to the so-called “hostile” policy of the United States as a key reason for its January withdrawal from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and its decision to expel U.N. inspectors from its nuclear facilities.

North Korea has said before that it completed reprocessing its pool of spent rods, but Thursday marked the first time it claimed to be using plutonium gathered from the rods to make nuclear weapons. The country’s recent claims about its nuclear developments have not been independently confirmed.

“We will reprocess more spent fuel rods to be churned out in an unbroken chain from the 5 mw (megawatt) nuclear reactor in Yongbyon without delay when we deem it necessary,” the statement said, referring to the North’s nuclear plant.

The statement also said North Korea “made a switchover in the use of plutonium churned out by reprocessing spent fuel rods in the direction (of) increasing its nuclear deterrent force.”

Analyses by diplomats and regional observers indicate that the North’s statement fits a pattern of tactics intended to help its negotiating position in international talks.

“This is what North Korea always does before negotiating,” Jin Canrong, an international relations expert at the People’s University in Beijing, told Reuters. “They throw out a few new balls.”

The North’s statement dismissed as groundless reports that more international talks could be held soon, similar to the six-way summit on the North’s nuclear program held in late August by North and South Korea, Japan, the United States, Russia and China.

But the North notably did not rule out the possibility for more talks altogether in its statement.

South Korean Vice Unification Minister Cho Kun-shik said at a briefing in Seoul the North would respond to future calls for new talks.

“They are not in a position to oppose talks,” he said.

South Korea’s Foreign Ministry urged the North in a statement not to take steps that would further escalate the situation.

“The North’s announcement was very regrettable,” South Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman Shin Bong-kil said. “We are deeply concerned it not only undermines inter-Korean relations and efforts for the peaceful resolution of the nuclear issues but hurts the atmosphere for dialogue set by the previous talks.”

In his comments to reporters, Powell called on the North’s neighbors to urge it to abandon its nuclear ambitions.

“North Korea’s neighbors should also be delivering a message to Kim Jong Il that the solution to the problem is for them to stop moving in this direction (and to) continue to participate in the diplomacy that is under way,” Powell said.

U.S. intelligence analysts have expressed concern that North Korea might have three, four or even six nuclear weapons instead of the one or two the Central Intelligence Agency now estimates, according to an Associated Press report.

Powell said the United States was still willing to consider some security guarantees to ease the nuclear tensions with the North.

“We are examining ways … to provide the kinds of security assurances that might help to move the process further along,” he said. “We will continue to pursue diplomacy.”

The reprocessing of 8,000 rods could yield enough material to create 20 nuclear bombs, Yu Suk-ryul, a professor at the Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security in Seoul, told Reuters. But he said North Korea did not have the expertise to produce that many bombs — perhaps five or six in about six months.

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