The Washington Times

N. Korea reiterates plans for fuel rods

April 24, 2003
Section: PAGE ONE

Page: A01


Caption: Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly and Air Force officer Gary L. North returned to their hotel, whose staff wore masks amid fears of severe acute respiratory syndrome, after talks in Beijing yesterday on North Korea's plans [Photo by AP].

North Korea opened a meeting with U.S. and Chinese officials in Beijing yesterday with a tough reiteration of its plans to reprocess spent nuclear fuel rods now in storage.

U.S. intelligence agencies, however, have not confirmed that the North Koreans have begun reprocessing about 8,000 spent fuel rods that were supposed to remain in storage under a 1994 agreement with the United States.

Bush administration officials told The Washington Times that the North Korean official in charge of the talks, Ri Gun, who is the Foreign Ministry deputy director for American affairs, opened the talks by telling the U.S. delegation about the reprocessing.

The North Koreans "made it clear they are moving ahead with reprocessing," said one official familiar with intelligence reports of the opening session of the talks in Beijing.

Another official said trucks have been spotted recently at the fuel rod storage facility at North Korea's nuclear complex at Yongbyon, which could indicate movement to a reprocessing facility at the same site. No reprocessing, however, has been detected, the official said.A National Security Council spokesman did not comment.

The issue of reprocessing the spent fuel rods, which yields weapons-grade plutonium, is viewed as the critical "point of no return" in effective efforts to prevent North Korea from building nuclear weapons.

The North Korean statement in Beijing is the latest twist in a confusing series of remarks by Pyongyang on the nuclear reprocessing.

The official Korean Central News Agency stated Friday that the communist government was "successfully reprocessing" the nuclear rods. Three days later, a different English translation of the official statement said that North Korea is "successfully going forward to reprocess work" on the rods.

The statement initially had been read by some U.S. administration officials as a sharp escalation of the nuclear crisis. The declaration at the closed-door Beijing meeting was a reiteration of Monday's translation.

In Tokyo, a visiting Russian Foreign Ministry official said the U.S.-North Korean nuclear standoff has been "pushed to the limit."

"It is probable that as early as tomorrow events may take a disastrous course," Alexander Losyukov told reporters after meeting Japanese officials.

The U.S. delegation to the talks is led by James Kelly, assistant secretary of state for East Asia and Pacific affairs, and the Chinese side is led by Foreign Ministry official Fu Ying.

Mr. Kelly urged the North Koreans to adhere to the provisions of the 1994 Agreed Framework and to follow other agreements aimed at limiting nuclear weapons development, said officials familiar with the talks.

The 1994 agreement required North Korea to freeze its nuclear program in exchange for Western help in meeting its fuel needs, including shipments of fuel oil and the construction of two light-water nuclear reactors that generate electricity but are less useful in nuclear-arms production.

Officials said it is not clear whether the North Korean statement on the fuel rods is an opening negotiating ploy or whether Pyongyang is indeed taking steps to reprocess the rods.

U.S. intelligence agencies are closely monitoring a five-megawatt reactor at Yongbyon. Special nuclear "sniffer" aircraft have conducted flights to try to detect any nuclear activity there.

"We have seen lights on and people [at the reprocessing facility], but we don't know what is going on inside," one official said.

The three-way talks are the first meeting on the North Korean nuclear crisis since Pyongyang disclosed to Mr. Kelly in October that it had a covert uranium-enrichment program outside the Agreed Framework.

North Korea has since withdrawn from the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and in February, satellite and aircraft monitoring detected the start of the Yongbyon reactor. The United States has halted the fuel-oil deliveries and put the construction of the nuclear plants on hold.

American officials close to the talks have said the United States is seeking a "verifiable, irreversible end to North Korea's nuclear program."

In Beijing, Mr. Kelly told reporters after the first meeting, "No words today, thank you." The talks are set to continue through tomorrow.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said yesterday that the Beijing talks are an opportunity for the three sides to present their views.

"In this first set of meetings, nothing is being put on the table," Mr. Powell said in an interview with CBS News. "They will hear what we think about the situation. They will hear our strong views. We expect the North Koreans to present their views strongly, and we certainly expect the Chinese to present their views strongly."

The CIA stated in an unclassified estimate of the North Korean nuclear program that reprocessing the fuel rods would produce "enough plutonium for several more weapons."

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said last week that North Korea's reprocessing of the fuel rods to extract plutonium would be "an extremely serious matter."

Mr. Boucher provided no details of the talks.

"Multilateral talks began later in the morning and went into late afternoon, with all three sides participating and presenting their views," he told reporters.

Mr. Kelly later provided briefings on the meeting to representatives of the South Korean and Japanese governments, the spokesman said.

Seoul and Tokyo were blocked from participating in the talks, but the United States hopes that its two Asian allies will be admitted later.

North Korea had demanded one-on-one talks with the United States and settled for only adding China, an ally, as a compromise. Many observers said the North Koreans agreed to the talks after the rapid U.S. military victory in Iraq.

In Moscow, Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said Russia would participate in expanded talks on the nuclear crisis if asked.

South Korean Defense Minister Cho Young-kil said in Seoul on Tuesday that North Korea has not started to reprocess the spent fuel.

"We suspect that North Korea has completed preparations for reprocessing the fuel rods but it has not yet started doing so," the official Yonhap news agency cited Mr. Cho as telling the South Korean legislature.