North Korea's statement on fuel rods retracted

Web site post withdrawn amid confusion over accuracy of translation

April 19, 2003|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

SEOUL, South Korea - Just days away from the scheduled opening of discussions with the United States, North Korea appeared to announce yesterday that it was reprocessing nuclear fuel rods, a step that would suggest the development of atomic weapons.

Later, however, the statement was withdrawn from North Korea's official Web site amid confusion over the accuracy of the translation.

The original announcement from North Korea, as posted in English, had stated unequivocally that "we are successfully reprocessing more than 8,000 spent fuel rods at the final phase." However, the White House and the State Department cited another translation in which the North Koreans said, "We are successfully completing the final phase, to the point of the reprocessing operation, for some 8,000 spent fuel rods."

Officials with access to the relevant intelligence said there was no independent evidence that North Korea had begun reprocessing. In the past, however, officials have said there is limited capability to detect when the reactor is turned on. It could take up to several weeks, they said, to determine whether it had been activated.

The White House, reacting cautiously, said it would consult with Japan, South Korea and China before responding to the original statement. "Once we have a clear sense of the facts and views of our friends and allies, we'll make a decision on how to proceed," said a White House spokeswoman, Claire Buchan.

This would not be the first time that the North Koreans mistranslated one of their own documents, said Daniel Pinkston, a Korea expert at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. This year, he said, Pyongyang, the capital of North Korea, created another controversy when it reportedly said that it had "turned on its nuclear reactor." In fact, he added, it had said only that the reactor was getting to the point where it could be turned on.

That reactor, American officials said, was turned on several weeks later and is still operating.

This week, experts with access to Western intelligence on North Korea's nuclear program reaffirmed that there was no indication of reprocessing of nuclear fuel, a line consistently taken by American intelligence officials since the start of a crisis over weapons development late last year in the impoverished Communist country.

Yesterday evening, officials in the United States, South Korea and Japan said they lacked strong indication that the country's known plutonium fuel rods were being reprocessed. The fuel rods had been stored under the supervision of international inspectors at a nuclear complex at Yongbyon, until United Nations inspectors were expelled in January.

"North Korea has repeatedly said it would start reprocessing," Chun Young Woo, a director for arms control at South Korea's Foreign Ministry, told Reuters. "I've never heard that they actually did."

Yesterday's claim was being regarded by many North Korea analysts as a classic example of the country's shrewd, confounding and often seemingly reckless negotiating style. For months, North Korea had been demanding "knee-to-knee" talks with the United States to provide security guarantees to the country in exchange for verifiable disarmament.

The Bush administration ignored these demands, saying it would accept only multilateral talks including North Korea's neighbors, and even then would talk only after North Korea had dismantled its suspected nuclear weapons program.

This week, the two countries agreed to meet next week in Beijing in three-way talks, a configuration that appears to have been settled on to save face for each side. Several analysts said that the announcement, even in its less provocative form, was almost certainly a provocative bit of posturing.

"This is an attempt to pre-empt any American hard line in the negotiations, and a reaction to statements from people like Secretary [of Defense Donald H.] Rumsfeld, saying that he can't think of anything to give to North Korea in return for its agreement for verifiable disarmament," said Hak Sun Paik, a North Korea expert at the Sejong Institute, an independent research group in Seoul. "North Korea also wants to offset a kind of image in Washington that it had learned a lesson from the Iraqi war, and that is why it has agreed for dialogue."

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