SEOUL, April 18 (UPI) -- North Korea appeared to say Friday that it was "successfully reprocessing" thousands of spent fuel rods under its nuclear program, which experts say could yield enough plutonium for several atomic bombs.
But as is common with Pyongyang pronouncements, the wording of the Foreign Ministry statement could also be interpreted to mean North Korea was successful in gearing up to reprocess the fuel rods.
Which meaning turns out to be the case will determine the atmosphere of talks planned for next week between the United States and North Korea in Beijing -- and perhaps even whether the talks will take place.
"It was not clear what it means," said U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher on Friday. "We are consulting closely with the Japanese, Koreans and Chinese. ... (and) are evaluating the statement."
Reprocessing the reactor rods purifies the plutonium isotope necessary to form a nuclear weapon. Nuclear experts say this action, much more than the restarting of small reactors earlier this year, will be the signal Stalinist state is pursuing not nuclear energy but nuclear weapons.
The Foreign Ministry statement carried by the state-run Central News Agency also said the nuclear problem would be the main focus of next week's talks with the United States and China.
The reprocessing of spent fuel rods, stored at the North's key nuclear complex in Yongbyon, north of Pyongyang, is "at the final phase," the Pyongyang officials said.
North Korea has learned from the Iraqi war that "it is necessary to have a powerful physical deterrent force," according to the statement, indicating North Korea would produce nuclear weapons.
Nuclear experts in South Korea regarded reprocessing of spent fuel rods as the most provocative in a series of steps escalating tensions over the nuclear program. Washington believes North Korea already has one or two nuclear bombs.
"Any steps toward beginning reprocessing would be another provocative action by North Korea intended to intimidate and blackmail the international community," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said in January.
The North Korean statement claimed Pyongyang had sent interim information to the United States and other countries concerned early in March after resuming our nuclear activities from December last year. South Korean officials denied any knowledge, however.
Indeed, the North's announcement has purportedly surprised South Korean officials, who had been hopeful about the opening of nuclear talks next week as a long-awaited "critical momentum" for a peaceful resolution to the months-long nuclear crisis.
"Until now, we have no idea that North Korea had actually reprocessed fuel rods. We understand North Korea was still preparing for reprocessing," a Foreign Ministry official told United Press International on condition of anonymity. "We did not receive any official information from North Korea in March," he said.
The Geneva-based International Atomic Energy Agency could not be reached Friday for comment.
The North Korean statement said the "essential issues" would be discussed at next week's talks in Beijing with the United States and China, confirming the talks would take place: "We would like to confirm the U.S. intention in the forthcoming talks," the statement said.
But North Korea added that China would be a host, not a party, in the talks to defuse the nuclear crisis, calling next week's talks "bilateral," not trilateral.
"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 (North Korea) and the United States," the statement said.
The Bush administration has insisted any discussions need to be multilateral as firmly as the North Koreans insisted on sitting down "knee to knee" with the Americans. Having China present, but not key U.S. allies South Korea and Japan, would appear to be a compromise.
A State Department source told United Press International Friday that China was viewing itself as a full participant in the talks. But China's ambassador to South Korea has equivocated on the point, saying "China would mediate" -- which could mean either actual party or merely facilitator in the talks.
Officials and analysts in Seoul played down the North's announcement about the rod reprocessing as a move aimed at increasing negotiation leverage in the upcoming talks.
"The wordings in the statement are very vague. It seems aimed at putting pressure on the United States ahead of the crucial talks," said an official at the Unification Ministry.
Senior officials from South Korea, the United States and Japan are set to meet in Washington Friday to discuss the agenda for next week's landmark talks on North Korea, officials here said. U.S envoy to North Korea James Kelly will consult with South Korea's Deputy Foreign Minister Lee Soo-hyuck and Mitoji Yabunaka, Japan's director general of Asian and Oceanian affairs.