U.S. official: N. Korea move 'insulting': Upcoming talks in doubt

April 18, 2003

From Elise Labott
CNN Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A senior Bush administration official said Friday the United States is reconsidering whether to hold talks with North Korea after the East Asian nation said it is again reprocessing nuclear fuel rods.

The two nations had planned to conduct meetings, along with representatives of the Chinese government, next week in Beijing, China.

But an announcement from Pyongyang, North Korea, on Friday "throws everything into confusion and doubt," said the official, adding that White House, State Department and Pentagon officials would meet Friday to determine whether to go ahead with the talks.

On Friday, the North Korean government issued a statement saying it is successfully reprocessing about 8,000 spent fuel rods.

The U.S. official said it is impossible to tell whether Pyongyang is lying or seriously making good on its threat, which could provide enough plutonium to make several nuclear bombs.

"You can't tell immediately," the official said. "They could have started today and we wouldn't know."

The official said the announcement is being seen by the Bush administration as a North Korean attempt to strengthen its bargaining position ahead of next week's scheduled talks.

"This is the perverse way they think," the official said. "They think they can get leverage.

"This is really sand in our eyes to say this the week before the talks," he said. "It's insulting."

'Dramatically changes the landscape' for talks
The official pointed to comments made in recent weeks by U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell that a move by North Korea to reprocess the spent fuel would dramatically change the landscape for talks with Pyongyang.

The United States had said that during the upcoming talks, officials would repeat a demand for North Korea to abandon its nuclear program completely and come back into compliance with treaty obligations.

The senior official also noted a statement Friday by the Chinese ambassador to South Korea that suggested that while China can "play a helpful role," the issue should be resolved between the "parties concerned," that is, the United States and North Korea.

The three-way meeting was billed by the United States as a concession from North Korea, which had demanded one-on-one talks with the United States at the same time it was threatening to move ahead with its nuclear weapons program.

Washington said the issue was not solely between the United States and North Korea and had insisted on a multilateral setting.

"China's position has always been that they can open the door," the official said.

"But this sounds like China making this a bilateral issue once again, and the president feels strongly he is not going to enter into bilateral talks with North Korea."