SEOUL, South Korea – 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 development raises the stakes in the North's upcoming talks with the United States over Pyongyang's suspected nuclear weapons programs. Those talks could begin in Beijing as soon as next week.
"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 claim could not be confirmed independently because North Korea expelled U.N. nuclear monitors last year.
In Washington, a State Department official said the United States is not aware of any information indicating that reprocessing has begun.
He declined to elaborate but the comment suggested that U.S. satellite observations of the North's main nuclear facility did not indicate any new activity.
The official, asking not to be identified, said he was not aware of any change in the plan to go ahead with the talks in Beijing.
Another official, also speaking privately, said the statement may be "typical North Korean bluster" in advance of the discussions.
"There is no doubt that this Foreign Ministry statement throws the holding of the talks in doubt," the official said.
The North Korean spokesman emphasized the importance that the North sees in a military deterrent to stave off a possible U.S. attack in the wake of the war against Iraq.
"The Iraqi war teaches a lesson that in order to prevent a war and defend the security of a country and the sovereignty of a nation it is necessary to have a powerful physical deterrent force only," the unnamed spokesman told North Korea's KCNA news agency.
The United States denies it plans military action.
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.
Chun Young-woo, a director for arms control at South Korea's Foreign Ministry, said the Beijing talks "would never have been ... agreed upon" if the United States knew about the reported reprocessing.
"North Korea has repeatedly said it would start reprocessing," Chun said. "I've never heard that they actually did."
Washington earlier confirmed that a reactor at the North's Yongbyon nuclear complex was operating, but had not said reprocessing was underway.
Fuel rods are used to power nuclear reactors. Burning the uranium inside creates a small amount of plutonium, which can then be extracted and reprocessed for bombs.
The uranium-alloy rods -- 1 inch in diameter, 21 inches long and 13.7 pounds each -- could yield enough plutonium for several bombs if they were put through a nearby radiochemical reprocessing lab, experts say.
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.
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 initially demanded a nonaggression treaty in one-on-one talks but indicated last week it could accept U.S. demands for multilateral talks and agreed to let China sit at the table.
Washington wants to expand future talks to include South Korea, Japan and Russia.
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.
Also Friday, South Korea welcomed the Beijing talks and urged North Korea to resume inter-Korean dialogue. North Korea canceled Cabinet-level talks scheduled for April 7-10.