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N. Korea May Have Finished Reprocessing Fuel Rods, say News Reports - 2003-07-13

A South Korean news agency reports that North Korea may have completed reprocessing of all of its spent nuclear fuel rods. The news comes as Australia's prime minister says war with North Korea is a possibility.

South Korea's Yonhap news agency, quoting a former ruling party lawmaker, says North Korea told U.S. officials last week that Pyongyang finished reprocessing 8,000 spent fuel rods on June 30.

According to Sunday's report, Pyongyang's United Nations diplomats made the revelation during an informal meeting in New York with a U.S. State Department official.

If true, it means the communist North could extract plutonium to build at least six nuclear weapons within months.

Australian Prime Minister John Howard says a lot of work is needed to avoid a war with North Korea, and he worries that the nuclear dispute could turn hostile.

He made the comment prior to starting an eight-day trip to the Philippines, Japan and South Korea for talks on international security issues and trade. The North Korean nuclear issue will be high on his agenda.

Mr. Howard, speaking to Australia's ABC network said, "you never rule out the possibility of diplomatic actions working" which he called "infinitely preferable to military involvement."

In Japan, officials expressed concern about North Korea's nuclear programs. Liberal Democratic Party Secretary General Taku Yamasaki says if the spent fuel rods are indeed being reprocessed, Pyongyang has become a full-fledged threat to the international community.

Sunday's Yonhap dispatch follows other reports that North Korea had begun reprocessing the spent fuel rods.

South Korea's intelligence agency told the country's parliament last week that it believed that the North had recently reprocessed a small number of the spent fuel rods.

Until recently, American and South Korean officials had said they could not confirm North Korea's claims to have begun the reprocessing.

Japanese officials on Saturday also said Tokyo wants to see five-nation talks on the North Korean nuclear issue held by early August. Japan wants a seat at the table with the United States, South Korea, China and North Korea.

A North Korean official newspaper Saturday said Pyongyang is not opposed to multilateral talks but first wants one-on-one discussions with Washington.

Concern has been mounting since last October when Washington said the North Koreans had admitted violating several international accords to give up efforts to build nuclear weapons.