Senior administration officials said they were not abandoning the six-nation talks designed to halt North Korea's nuclear weapons program, even as they acknowledged negotiations will not resume this month despite previous North Korean commitments to do so.
They suggested North Korea (search) might be wooed back to the table later this year after the U.S. presidential election and after the board of the U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency (search) meets in November and reviews South Korean experiments with enriched uranium and plutonium.
North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Choe Su Hon disclosed Monday at the United Nations (search) that his country had converted the spent nuclear fuel rods, saying it would serve as a deterrent to increasing U.S. nuclear threats and to prevent a nuclear war in northeast Asia.
The danger of war on the Korean peninsula "is snowballing," the North Korean diplomat warned.
"We take all their claims seriously," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Tuesday, but he also suggested a touch of theater in the North Korean diplomat's statement, saying Pyongyang "is bragging about violating its commitments and its promises."
Boucher said he held out no hope that a fourth round of negotiations could be held by Thursday, the end of September, as promised by North Korea. The six-nation talks also include South Korea, Japan, China and Russia.
Meanwhile, Undersecretary of State John R. Bolton said the Bush administration remains committed to six-party talks, and that North Korea was using criticism of South Korean tests as a propaganda ploy. Bolton said it was "very hard to know" how advanced North Korea's nuclear weapons program was.
North Korea's nuclear weapons program has become part of the presidential election campaign.
Democratic candidate John Kerry prefers one-on-one negotiations with North Korea and has accused the Bush administration of letting a "nuclear nightmare" develop by refusing to deal with North Korea when President Bush took office in January 2001.
"North Korea's nuclear program is well ahead of what Saddam Hussein was even suspected of doing, yet the president took his eye off the ball, wrongly ignoring this growing danger," Kerry said recently.
Some U.S. intelligence analysts are becoming concerned that North Korea may have up to six nuclear weapons instead of the one or two the Central Intelligence Agency (search) estimates.
Daryl G. Kimball, executive director of the private Arms Control Association (search), said North Korea has claimed before to be turning plutonium from spent fuel rods into nuclear weapons, but the claim has never been substantiated.
Kimball said the administration was engaged in "wishful thinking" about six-nation talks. "The North Korean situation has devolved under their watch, and the current approach is clearly not working out," he said in a telephone interview.