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U.S. doubts North Korean claims

From CNN Senior United Nations Correspondent Richard Roth

Choe told CNN 8,000 nuclear fuel rods had been reprocessed.
Choe told CNN 8,000 nuclear fuel rods had been reprocessed.

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North Korea
United States
Nuclear Warfare

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- U.S. officials have expressed skepticism but deep concern over North Korea's claim that it has reprocessed 8,000 fuel rods from its Yongbyon nuclear reactor -- fuel that could be used in nuclear weapons -- in response to U.S. threats.

In a rare interview Wednesday, Vice Foreign Minister Choe Su Hon told CNN of the move, saying North Korea's nuclear deterrence is not intended to attack other countries, but as a means to safeguard the country's territory.

"We have already processed that fuel rods and also changed the purpose of those fuel rods," Choe said.

U.S. officials have estimated that plutonium obtained from the rods could be used to build between six and 12 nuclear warheads.

"This is the third time they have told us they finished reprocessing the rods," U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell said Thursday, but he added, "we have no evidence to confirm that."

"I believe that this is a matter of the most serious concern for the international community, and I think North Korea's neighbors should also be delivering a message to Kim Jong Il that the solution to the problem is for them to stop moving in this direction -- continue to participate in the diplomacy that is under way," Powell said.

Another U.S. official also told CNN that the claim should be treated with "a great deal of skepticism."

The official said the claim is regarded by the United States as a "negotiation tactic," and added, "we don't have any evidence to suggest it's true."

Asked what the new purpose of the rods is, Choe said, "As we have clearly pointed out, since the United States is now threatening the DPRK (Democratic People's Republic of Korea) with nuclear weapons to launch a pre-emptive nuclear attack against the DPRK, we have been left with no alternative but to be in possession of the nuclear deterrence.

"That's why we have taken up all measures to maintain and strengthen that nuclear deterrence."

Choe claimed the war with Iraq convinced the North Korean government to further strengthen its military defense.

Choe also told CNN that Pyongyang's relations with the United States are at their worst level ever, repeatedly attacking Washington for not signing a non-aggression treaty with North Korea.

The minister said the treaty would enable Pyongyang to cooperate with the international community on nuclear issues.

"Our proposal is modest and simple, we just want both the DPRK and the United States to put down guns at the same time and coexist peacefully."

No word on talks

The minister refused to say if and when North Korea will test a nuclear weapon as the government has previously indicated it would.

The traveling minister said relations were very good with influential neighbor China. Beijing is concerned about a nuclear North Korea and the flood of refugees should conflict erupt.

Choe also attacked the United States for U.S. President George W. Bush's statement that North Korea was part of the "axis of evil."

There was no indication when North Korea would agree to another round of multi-nations talks on its nuclear program. The last round was in Beijing in August.

"We have never made any promises with regards to the next round of six party talks," the vice foreign minister said.

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