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North Korea May Be Making Nuclear Weapons; U.S. Worried

By James Brooke

The New York Times -- SEOUL, South Korea

North Korea raised the tension in future nuclear talks by saying on Thursday that it is making atomic bombs from plutonium it has reprocessed from 8,000 spent fuel rods. The United States responded that it could not verify the Korean statement, but still took it seriously.

The Bush administration has set a “red line” that it would not accept North Korea’s export of bombs or of its bomb-making abilities, and a North Korean diplomat said in New York that his nation would not cross that line.

“We have no intention of transferring any means of that nuclear deterrence to other countries,” Choe Su Hon, North Korea’s Deputy Foreign Minister, told reporters at the North’s mission to the United Nations in New York, the official New China News Agency reported on Thursday.

In Washington, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, said, “This is a matter of the most serious concern,” though he added: “This is the third time they have told us they’d just finished reprocessing the rods. We have no evidence to confirm that.”

The fuel rods had been sealed by an international agreement for almost a decade, until last winter, when North Korea expelled U.N. inspectors and started reprocessing them. Choe told the reporters on Wednesday that the North had now completed reprocessing all the stored rods.

If all 8,000 rods have indeed been reprocessed, North Korea would have the plutonium for about 20 bombs, nuclear experts calculate. But the North is not believed to have the expertise to make more than half a dozen in six months. The CIA’s public estimate is that North Korea has one or two nuclear bombs.

New rods from a newly restarted research reactor will be reprocessed and “churned out in an unbroken chain,” the Korean Central News Agency said. It quoted an unidentified spokesman for the North’s Foreign Ministry as saying that the reprocessing was aimed at increasing the nation’s “nuclear deterrent force.”