WASHINGTON – Plans for U.S.-North Korean talks in China on Pyongyang's nuclear weapons program were thrown into uncertainty Friday after the communist state appeared to announce steps that could yield six to eight bombs within months.
North Korea said in an English language broadcast for foreign consumption that it was reprocessing more than 8,000 spent nuclear fuel rods at its main nuclear complex in Yongbyon.
But late in the day, questions arose as to accuracy of the North Korean translation. A U.S. government translation of the original Korean language version suggested that the country was only at "the point of reprocessing."
A State Department official called into question the original claim, saying there was no indication that any reprocessing had taken place, a comment apparently based on information from satellite photographs.
The confusion about North Korea's intentions came just days after the State Department disclosed plans for talks involving the United States, North Korea and China, possibly by next Wednesday. Earlier this week, Secretary of State Colin Powell called that development good news.
In a statement early Saturday local time, North Korea proposed holding high-level talks with South Korea on April 27-29 in Pyongyang.
The talks proposed by the United States would be the first opportunity for substantive discussions since last October, when North Korea acknowledged to U.S. officials the existence of a uranium-based nuclear weapons program.
Concerned about a weapons program, the Bush administration sought talks that would include not only the North Koreans but also their neighbors, South Korea, Japan and China.
White House spokeswoman Claire Buchan said Friday, "We've seen this statement by North Korea, and we're consulting with other interested parties including Korea, Japan and China on where we go from here."
At the State Department, a senior official said the statement may be "typical North Korean bluster" in advance of discussions. Still, the statement had thrown the talks into doubt, said the official, asking not to be identified.
He predicted strong Pentagon resistance to going ahead with the Beijing meeting. The official spoke before the discrepancy over the translation arose.
The English language version, broadcast by the Korean Central News Agency, said: "We are successfully reprocessing more than 8,000 spent fuel rods at the final phase."
But the U.S. government translation of the native language Korean Central Broadcasting Station account said, "We are successfully completing the final phase to the point of the reprocessing operation for some 8,000 spent fuel rods."
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher recalled that the United States had said it would regard "as an extremely serious matter" any move by North Korea to reprocess spent fuel rods.
High-level meetings to discuss the issue were held throughout the day Friday. At the State Department, Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly reviewed developments with top Japanese and South Korean Foreign Ministry officials.
An unnamed Foreign Ministry spokesman said North Korea's position was influenced by developments in 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 spokesman told North Korea's KCNA news agency.
The United States denies it plans military action against North Korea.
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 within months.
In the weeks and months preceding the Iraq war, many members of Congress and outside analysts felt that North Korea posed a greater threat to the United States than Iraq.
The administration countered by saying that Iraq was easier to deal with because its military capability was less advanced than North Korea's. In the event of attack, North Korea has the capacity to inflict horrific casualties on Seoul and the surrounding area, located just 30 miles south of the Demilitarized Zone.
In Iraq, the administration was determined not to allow that country to develop the same military might that North Korea has.
The North Korean spokesman said that at the talks planned for Beijing, China would play only a peripheral role, with North Korea and the United States dealing with the essential issues by themselves.
A State Department official disputed that assertion, saying China had said it would be a full partner in the talks.
North Korea had been insisting for months that the best way for the United States to address security issues on the peninsula was in face-to-face talks between the two countries.
The agreement to hold three-way talks -- with China included -- appeared to some to be a concession by the North.
The United States has been determined to avoid a bilateral negotiation with North Korea, insisting that a North Korea with nuclear weapons would affect many nations -- China, South Korea, Japan and Russia, among them.