SEOUL, South Korea – North Korea made a conciliatory gesture toward South Korea on Saturday, proposing high-level talks a day after jeopardizing negotiations with the United States by claiming it is reprocessing spent nuclear fuel, possibly for weapons.
North Korean officials telephoned South Korean officers at the border village of Panmunjom to propose Cabinet-level talks on April 27-29 in Pyongyang. The North called off a similar meeting last week.
In a message carried by the North Korean state news agency, KCNA, a Pyongyang official stressed "the need to resourcefully settle the issue of inter-Korean relations by the nation itself through national cooperation."
North Korea often has tried to drive a wedge between South Korea and its chief ally, the United States, by dealing with the two nations separately and saying only Koreans can resolve tensions on the peninsula. There are 37,000 U.S. soldiers based in South Korea, and Seoul keeps close ties with the United States, though Washington tends to take a tougher line on North Korea.
The appeal for talks came after perplexing signals from the isolated North left officials in Seoul and Washington wondering just what North Korea's intentions were.
On Friday, North Korea said it was reprocessing thousands of spent nuclear fuel rods at its main nuclear complex in Yongbyon. Fuel rods are used to power nuclear power plants, and produce tiny amounts of plutonium when used. That plutonium, in turn, can be used to make bombs.
KCNA, in its English-language report, quoted a Foreign Ministry spokesman as saying "we are successfully reprocessing more than 8,000 spent fuel rods at the final phase."
However, U.S. and South Korean officials said there was no proof that reprocessing had begun, and suggested the vaguely worded original North Korean statement may have been mistranslated. They said the Korean version could be interpreted as the North saying it will begin reprocessing, not that it has started doing so.
But the key question remains: Is North Korea trying to arm itself with nuclear bombs, or is it just trying to raise the stakes before crucial talks with U.S. negotiators?
"We think North Korea is trying to gain leverage ahead of the talks," South Korea's top security adviser, Ra Jong-il, was quoted by his office as saying.
The United States, North Korea and China plan to hold talks in Beijing as early as next week to discuss Pyongyang's suspected nuclear weapons programs.
It would be the first opportunity for substantive U.S. discussions with Pyongyang since October, when U.S. officials said North Korea admitted having a nuclear weapons program in violation of a 1994 agreement.
A senior State Department official said Saturday there is every expectation that the meeting in Beijing will go ahead as planned.
The official, who asked not to be identified, did not elaborate but his comment suggested the administration had concluded that North Korea had, in fact, not started reprocessing spent nuclear fuel rods.
The U.S. delegation in Beijing would be led by Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly.
Intelligence experts say reprocessing spent fuel rods will enable North Korea to yield enough plutonium to build several nuclear bombs within months. Washington believes Pyongyang already has one or two bombs.
North Korea neither has admitted nor denied having nuclear bombs, but has said it has the right to develop them.
In Seoul on Saturday, hundreds of demonstrators chanted slogans supporting the United States and destroyed an effigy of North Korea's late leader, Kim Il Sung.
At one point, the demonstrators mimicked Iraqis who toppled a Baghdad statue of Saddam Hussein on April 11 by tearing down a 6-foot-high cutout of Kim and dragging it along the streets.
Despite the North's latest statements on reprocessing, there was no indication the Beijing talks would be suspended.
"Once we have a clear sense of the facts and the views of our friends and allies, we'll make a decision about how to proceed," White House spokeswoman Claire Buchan said. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Friday he had "nothing new to say about the talks one way or the other." However, he recalled that Washington said it would regard any move by Pyongyang to reprocess spent fuel rods "as a very serious matter."
Uneasy about Pyongyang's nuclear ambitions, Washington sought talks that would include not only the North Koreans but also their neighbors -- South Korea, Japan and China.
Pyongyang insisted on one-on-one talks with Washington but agreed last week to let China sit at the negotiating table.