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Doubts Raised About Reported N. Korea Blast - 2004-09-17

South Korean officials are apparently re-evaluating their assessment of a cloud seen over North Korea last week. Initially, officials said they suspected the cloud was caused by an explosion, leading to speculation it might have resulted from a nuclear test. U.S. officials said that was unlikely, adding they accepted North Korean assertions it was a construction-related blast. On Friday, a South Korean Cabinet member said officials may have misinterpreted data regarding the cloud, and there may not have been an explosion there at all. Meanwhile, North Korea allowed a delegation of foreign diplomats to tour a site, where Pyongyang says it conducted a construction-related explosion.

South Korean officials said Friday that a suspected mushroom cloud spotted in North Korea may have been just a regular cloud.

Last week, South Korean and U.S. officials said the cloud and other intelligence indicated a large blast in North Korea.

Pyongyang says the explosion was part of a hydro-electric dam project. U.S. officials have not disputed that explanation.

Chung Ok-nim is an expert on defense issues at Sun Moon University in South Korea. She says the confusion is worrisome, because the United States and South Korea may not be communicating closely.

"Actually, it's a little bit difficult to figure out what has really happened in the place in North Korea," said Chung Ok-nim. "But what is clear is, in this very sensitive situation, the U.S.-ROK information coordination is not that good."

North Korea took several diplomats to the dam project Thursday, but news reports say the diplomats could not yet confirm whether a big explosion had taken place.

Kim Tae-Woo is a North Korea analyst at the Korea Institute for Defense Analysis in Seoul. He says the diplomats are not likely to have the expertise to determine what happened.

"In my opinion, that could be simply a political show," he said. "Diplomats cannot determine 100 percent, whether this is surely for civil construction or not."

Reports of the blast surfaced a week ago, raising international fears that the reclusive nation might be testing weapons, perhaps even conducting a nuclear test. But U.S. and South Korean officials have said it does not appear that North Korea carried out a nuclear test.

And in Friday's announcement, South Korea's Unification Ministry said its analysts may have misread seismological and satellite data. Ministry officials said it is possible that no major explosion of any sort took place in the area where intelligence agents first suspected a blast. They also said that the hydro-electric project the diplomats saw was not at the same location as the suspected explosion.

The alleged blast was reported in a remote part of North Korea, near the border with China. Foreigners are rarely allowed in the area, which many defense analysts in South Korea and the United States say is home to several military facilities, including possible missile bases.

The United States, South Korea, Japan, China and Russia have been trying to persuade Pyongyang to give up its efforts to build nuclear weapons. North Korea has said it would not attend a fourth round of talks originally scheduled for next week.