Bush administration officials say they are considering whether or not to go ahead with planned nuclear talks with North Korea and China next week. North Korea indicated in a statement Friday it had begun reprocessing thousands of fuel rods at its nuclear reactor complex. U.S. officials say the wording of the statement from Pyongyang was ambiguous.
Administration officials say they are examining the statement, as well as intelligence information about actual activity at the Yongbyon nuclear complex, as they consider whether to go ahead with the three-way meeting that was expected to begin late next week.
According to wire service accounts, North Korea claimed in the statement it was "successfully" reprocessing the fuel rods - action that would yield enough plutonium to build several nuclear weapons.
Such activity would amount to a major escalation of the nuclear crisis with North Korea that began last year, and as one official here put it, "would change the situation."
However, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher told reporters there was "some imprecision" in the language of the statement, and that consultations about it were underway within the U.S. government, and with South Korea, Japan and China.
"We are consulting closely with others including the Japanese, the Koreans and the Chinese." he said. "As we've said before, we would regard reprocessing of spent fuel to extract plutonium as an extremely serious matter."
U.S. officials had said as recently as this week that there was no evidence that reprocessing was underway at Yongbyon, but others said Friday they could not preclude the possibility that it had begun, but gone undetected by U.S. satellites and other intelligence means.
The agreement to hold the three-party talks was brokered by China and represented a compromise between the U.S. insistence on a regional, multilateral format for discussions, and a North Korean demand for bilateral talks and a non-aggression treaty with Washington.
In preparation for talks, the designated head of the U.S. delegation, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian Affairs James Kelly, met here Friday with senior South Korean and Japanese officials.
The Bush administration has described the Beijing talks as preliminary and as promised to include the Seoul and Tokyo governments in any follow-on negotiations.
The administration says it is seeking a verifiable and irreversible end to North Korea's nuclear weapons program, while holding out the prospect of political and economic benefits to Pyongyang if it does give up its nuclear ambitions.