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North Korea Sends Mixed Messages in Nuclear Dispute - 2003-04-19

There are mixed messages coming from North Korea about whether it has actually begun processing nuclear fuel that could be used to make nuclear weapons. U.S. officials suggest there may have been a translation error in the North Korean statement. Meanwhile, North Korea has sent an invitation to South Korea concerning renewed economic talks.

The dispatch from the Korean Central News Agency had analysts in the region puzzled. In the English language version released Friday by the official news agency, Pyongyang said it had begun successfully reprocessing more than eight-thousand spent nuclear fuel rods.

Such a move would be a dramatic escalation of the six-month old standoff over North Korea's nuclear program, and analysts say could have allowed North Korea to extract enough plutonium to make a number of nuclear weapons.

However, a U.S. government translation of the original Korean version of the dispatch indicates North Korea is on the verge of reprocessing the fuel rods and has not yet actually done so.

Washington, Seoul and Tokyo say they have seen no evidence that such reprocessing has actually taken place, an action that would cross a threshold that North Korea's neighbors have warned would have serious consequences.

In its mid-day English language newscast on Saturday, Pyongyang's state-run radio, Voice of Korea, made no mention of the story.

Confusion about what North Korea was trying to say had some administration officials in Washington contemplating cancellation of next week's planned talks in Beijing involving the United States, North Korea and China.

Administration officials say they are analyzing the statements and intelligence information about what may be taking place at the Yongbyon nuclear complex. Based on that information, they say, a determination will be made whether to go ahead with the three-way meeting that was expected to begin late next week.

In preparation for the discussions in Beijing, the designated head of the U.S. delegation, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian Affairs James Kelly, met on Friday in Washington with senior South Korean and Japanese officials. The Bush administration has promised to include officials from Seoul and Tokyo in any subsequent negotiations involving North Korea.

In another development, South Korea's Unification Ministry says it has received a request from Pyongyang proposing bilateral ministerial talks beginning on April 27 in North Korea. Pyongyang had previously canceled such scheduled talks on economic and other matters after South Korea decided to send non-combat troops to help in the U.S.-led war in Iraq.

The North Korean invitation to Seoul comes a day after Pyongyang officially announced that it would participate in three-way talks next week in Beijing with the United States and China.

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.

North Korea, until last week, had insisted it would discuss the issue only in direct, one-on-one talks with the United States. Some analysts suggest that the Stalinist state softened its stance, after watching the quick downfall of the Iraqi government in wake of the assault by U.S.-led forces.

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.