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Mistranslation hits nuclear talks

From Andrea Koppel
CNN Washington Bureau

South Korean troops complete an exercise near the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea.
South Korean troops complete an exercise near the demilitarized zone between North and South Korea.

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A North Korean government statement indicating it could soon have enough plutonium for several nuclear weapons was the result of a botched translation, U.S. officials said Friday.

A statement issued in English earlier in the day by the state-run Korea Central News Agency said North Korea was in the final stages of reprocessing spent nuclear fuel rods.

The statement, issued just days before talks with North Korean officials in Beijing, led the Bush administration to reconsider that meeting.

But the correct translation suggests North Korea has stopped just short of the reprocessing operation, and the talks will go on, a senior administration source told CNN.

The original translation issued by KCNA said North Korean technicians "are successfully reprocessing more than 8,000 spent fuel rods at the final phase."

But the actual message was somewhat different as translated by Federal Broadcast Information Service from the original KCNA press release in Korean.

That translation read: "We are successfully completing the final phase to the point of the reprocessing operation for some 8,000 spent fuel rods."

U.S. officials will hold "more definitive consultations" over coming days with allies in the region, the senior administration source said.

Other U.S. officials said the United States would repeat a demand for North Korea to abandon its nuclear program and resume compliance with the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons.

Next week's meeting had been billed by the United States as a concession from North Korea, which had demanded one-on-one talks with the United States while it threatened to move ahead with its nuclear weapons program.

The United States had refused to engage in talks that excluded other countries in the region, refusing to give in to what officials called North Korea's "nuclear blackmail."

One Bush administration referred to the timing of Friday's statement -- just a few days before the talks in Beijing -- as "sand in our eyes."

The confrontation between Washington and Pyongyang became public in October, when the United States accused North Korea of secretly pursuing a nuclear weapons program despite a 1994 agreement to freeze those efforts. North Korean officials admitted to the program, U.S. officials said.

North Korea denied the allegation, saying it was restarting a nuclear reactor at Yongbyon solely to provide electricity to the impoverished nation.

Since then, North Korea kicked out U.N. nuclear inspectors, restarted several nuclear facilities that had been mothballed and warned of war on the Korean Peninsula unless U.S. officials agreed to meet with them.

U.S. officials say there is no peaceful purpose to reprocessing spent fuel rods.

Friday's KCNA statement also referred to the U.S.-led war in Iraq, one of the three nations President Bush once called an "axis of evil" along with Iran and North Korea.

"The Iraqi war teaches a lesson that in order to prevent a war and defend the security of a country and the sovereignty of a nation, it is necessary to have a powerful physical deterrent force only," the KCNA statement said.

Wendy Sherman, the Clinton administration's policy coordinator for North Korea, called that comment "more ominous than their usual negotiating tactics."

"This statement doesn't talk about energy. It talks about the need for deterrence after the war in Iraq," she said.

"So I think instead of the North Koreans having blinked by the use of our force in Iraq, they have in fact decided the only way to deter the United States from going to war against North Korea is to have nuclear weapons -- and that is not a good sign."

A spokeswoman for South Korean President Roh Moo-Hyun told CNN there had been no change in plans for next week's meeting in Beijing. The South Korean government is in consultation with the United States, the spokeswoman said.

CNN Seoul Bureau Chief Sohn Jie-Ae, National Security Correspondent David Ensor and Producer Elise Labott contributed to this report.

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