North Korea raised the stakes in a nuclear standoff yesterday by saying for the first time it had processed fuel rods that could be used to make atomic bombs, but analysts said it was a pre-talks tactic.
A North Korean Foreign Ministry statement said Pyongyang would continue to boost its nuclear deterrent because the US remained hostile to the North. A vice foreign minister said Pyongyang would not pass on its nuclear capability to others.
"[North Korea] successfully finished the reprocessing of some 8,000 spent fuel rods," said the statement, published by the official KCNA news agency.
It dismissed as groundless reports that more international talks could be held soon to try to end the crisis but, significantly, did not rule them out altogether.
Analysts, officials and diplomats said North Korea's comments fitted a familiar pattern used to try to force concessions from the US and put pressure on ally China and, if anything, added strength to the view talks could take place soon.
"This is what North Korea always does before negotiating," said Jin Canrong, an international relations expert at the People's University in Beijing. "They throw out a few new balls."
He said China would insist that the North participate in more six-way talks including Japan, Russia, South Korea and the US.
Seoul's Foreign Ministry urged the North to refrain from steps that would worsen the situation.
"The North's announcement was very regrettable," Foreign Ministry spokesman Shin Bong-kil said in a statement. "We are deeply concerned it not only undermines inter-Korean relations and efforts for the peaceful resolution of the nuclear issues but hurts the atmosphere for dialogue set by the previous talks."
The North's statement and reported comments by Vice Foreign Minister Choe Su-hon in New York sounded uncompromising. According to China's Xinhua news agency, Choe said in New York his country had a deterrent but would not give its size.
The reprocessing, if confirmed, would be a significant development in the North's nuclear program since the rods can provide plutonium to make fissile material and had been sealed under a 1994 agreement with the US.
Diplomats say it is impossible to verify conclusively whether the rods have been processed.