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Conflicting Signals From North Korea

North Korea flag, atom, and nuclear energy
AP / CBS
North Korea said Friday it was reprocessing more than 8,000 spent nuclear fuel rods, which U.S. experts have said will give the communist state enough plutonium to make several atomic bombs.

The State Department is looking at North Korea's statement, said a U.S. official, trying to interpret Pyongyang's latest statement about its nuclear program. However, reports CBS News Correspondent Charles Wolfson, the official said the U.S. has no information to indicate that North Korea really has begun to reprocess the fuel rods.

The admission by North Korea could jeopardize the talks, but, on the other hand, said another official, may just be "typical North Korean bluster" before the talks.

"As we have already declared, we are successfully reprocessing more than 8,000 spent fuel rods at the final phase," an unnamed spokesman of Pyongyang's Foreign Ministry said, adding that "interim information" was sent to the United States and "other countries concerned" last month.

The spokesman told North Korea's KCNA news agency that "essential issues" will be discussed at the Beijing talks, which could begin as soon as next week.

Washington believes North Korea already has one or two nuclear bombs and can extract enough plutonium from the fuel rods to make six to eight more bombs within months.

"At the talks the Chinese side will play a relevant role as the host state and the essential issues related to the settlement of the nuclear issue will be discussed between the DPRK and the U.S.," the spokesman said.

DPRK stands for Democratic People's Republic of Korea, the North's official name.

China's ambassador in Seoul said North Korea and the United States should resolve their nuclear dispute themselves, and Beijing does not plan to mediate between them during talks.

"I don't think China plans to mediate," Ambassador Li Bin told South Korea's MBC Radio in an interview recorded Thursday. "Although China can play a constructive role, it is the two parties concerned that should resolve the problem. How much the problem could be resolved is up to how the two parties work."

U.S. and South Korean officials have said China, a key ally of North Korea, will be a full participant in the forthcoming talks.

In an interview Thursday, Secretary of State Colin Powell downplayed whether the war in Iraq had played a role in convincing the North Koreans to accept talks with more than just the U.S. at the table.

"I'm sure they didn't ignore what was happening in Iraq the last several weeks and the buildup to that, but the concept that is before us now of a trilateral or multilateral meeting was put in motion before the war," Powell said on PBS' "NewsHour with Jim Lehrer."

"All the countries in the region are affected," Powell said. "For the last several months we have been in touch with our friends, especially with the Chinese to see if they could help persuade the North Koreans that this was in their interest. It has been going on for some time before the war."

The U.S. wants to expand future talks to include South Korea, Japan and Russia.

The nuclear crisis flared in October, when the United States claimed that North Korea had admitted having a secret nuclear weapons program in violation of a 1994 agreement.

The United States and other countries stopped oil shipments to the North, which retaliated by withdrawing from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and moving to restart a nuclear reactor.

North Korea has accused Washington of plotting an invasion, and demanded a nonaggression treaty in one-on-one talks.

South Korea's new ambassador to the United States, Han Sung-joo, said Friday that any negotiated deal will be far more complex than U.S.-North Korean talks in 1994 that froze the North's nuclear facilities, ending a crisis at that time.

Now, Han said, North Korea will be expected to not only stop but promptly and verifiably dismantle its nuclear programs.

"This is going to be an arduous, long process. It's not going to be a cakewalk," Han said. He said he did not expect any deal for at least a month or two, noting the 1994 crisis took well over a year to resolve.

China's involvement has been regarded as a diplomatic victory for Washington as Beijing had been reluctant to get involved in what U.S. officials described as a global dispute.

Beijing previously supported Pyongyang's demands for direct talks with Washington.

Chinese diplomats have repeatedly delayed the discussion of the crisis in the U.N. Security Council. Last week, after agreeing to discuss the topic in the council, China blocked a motion by Washington to condemn North Korea.