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Bush hopeful over N Korea solution

File picture from 1996 of stored spent nuclear fuel rods at the Yongbyon facility in North Korea
File picture from 1996 of stored spent nuclear fuel rods at the Yongbyon facility in North Korea

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South Korea will not be at the first round of talks with its communist neighbor.
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FORT HOOD, Texas (CNN) -- U.S. President George W. Bush says there is a "good chance" diplomatic pressure will succeed in coaxing Pyongyang to end its suspected nuclear weapons programs.

Hours later -- Monday morning in Seoul -- the South Korean Ministry of Unification announced it had accepted a North Korean proposal for direct talks to be held next Sunday with cabinet-level officials in Pyongyang.

Talks involving North Korea, China and the United States are already scheduled for Wednesday in Beijing

"China's policy is for a nuclear-weapons-free peninsula, and now that they are engaged in a process, it makes it more likely it's going to occur," Bush said Sunday.

"You've got the United States adhering to that posture, you've got China adhering to that posture. South Korea believes that the peninsula ought to be nuclear-weapons-free," Bush said.

"Japan strongly believes that. And I believe that all four of us working together have a good chance of convincing North Korea to abandon her ambitions to develop nuclear arsenals."

The United States has insisted on a multilateral approach to defuse the nuclear standoff, rather than the direct U.S.-North Korea engagement that Pyongyang had been demanding.

The United States believes North Korea already has one or two nuclear bombs and can extract enough plutonium from the fuel rods to make several more within months.

But 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 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."

That confusion has cast some doubt on whether the Beijing talks will go ahead as planned.

Bush, when asked about the talks Sunday, did not directly address whether they will take place.

A Bush spokeswoman said afterward that the president's reference to China's involvement should not be taken as an indication the talks are definitely on, Associated Press reports.

Consultations with allies in the region continue and no final decision has been made, deputy press secretary Claire Buchan said.

Should the talks proceed, U.S. officials have said said they would repeat a demand for North Korea to abandon its alleged nuclear program and resume compliance with Non-Proliferation Treaty obligations.

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.

Allegation denied

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.

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.

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