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Reprocessing of N. Korean Nuclear  Fuel Rods Could Jeopardize Upcoming Talks - 2003-04-18

North Korea said Friday it is successfully reprocessing thousands of spent fuel rods at its main nuclear plant. The news, reported by the official Korean Central News Agency, comes only days before planned international talks on North Korea's nuclear moves.

North Korea says it is in the final stages of reprocessing more than 8,000 spent fuel rods from its nuclear power plant.

U.S. experts say the process could enable North Korea to extract enough plutonium to make several nuclear bombs.

Quoting an unnamed foreign ministry spokesman, the North Korean news agency says the U.S.-led war against Saddam Hussein in Iraq has taught the country a lesson: The only way to defend the nation is to have "a powerful physical deterrent force."

North Korea's statement acknowledges, for the first time, that it will participate in three-way talks next week in Beijing with the United States and China about the six-month-old nuclear impasse.

Washington last October said that Pyongyang had violated international agreements by pursuing a nuclear weapons program. North Korea responded with a series of provocative moves, including the expulsion of U.N. inspectors and withdrawing from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

The North's willingness to talk about its nuclear program with a third party is a breakthrough. All along, North Korea has insisted it would discuss the issue only in direct, one-on-one talks with the United States, which the United States has refused. But last week, North Korea said it was open to any format.

Some analysts suggest that the Stalinist state softened its stance, after watching the speed with which U.S.-led forces brought down the Iraqi government.

Pyongyang has repeatedly accused Washington of planning to attack it after Iraq. The United States says it wants to resolve its differences with North Korea peacefully.