EOUL, South Korea, Oct. 2 With nuclear talks expected in weeks, North Korea said today that it had completed reprocessing 8,000 spent nuclear fuel rods and is using the plutonium to make atomic bombs.
But with an eye to a "red line" unofficially drawn by the Bush Administration, a North Korean diplomat said in New York that his impoverished nation would not export its bombs or its bomb-making capacity to other countries.
"We have no intention of transferring any means of that nuclear deterrence to other countries," Choe Su Hon, North Korea's vice foreign minister, told reporters at North Korea's mission to the United Nations in New York, the New China News Agency reported today.
The rods had been sealed for almost a decade by an international agreement until last winter, when North Korea expelled United Nations inspectors and started reprocessing. Mr. Choe also told the reporters on Wednesday that the North had now completed reprocessing all the stored rods, an assertion that was repeated today in a dispatch by the Korean Central News Agency.
The North "made a switch-over in the use of plutonium churned out by reprocessing spent fuel rods in the direction (of) increasing its nuclear deterrent force," an unidentified spokesman for the North's Foreign Ministry told the state-run news agency.
New rods from a newly restarted research reactor will be reprocessed and "churned out in an unbroken chain," the statement continued, referring to a five-megawatt reactor in Yongbyon, which is believed capable of producing enough plutonium for one or two bombs a year.
North Korea, run by a Stalinist dictatorship for almost six decades, is largely closed to foreign reporters and it is impossible to independently check today's claims.
"There is no way to verify what they are saying, but that does not mean it is not true," Scott Snyder, Korea representative for the Asia Foundation, an American research center, said here today.
Mr. Snyder, the author of "Negotiating on the Edge," a book on North Korean negotiating tactics, added: "The North Koreans have commonly used crisis escalation as a vehicle to draw attention to their issues and shape the environment in ways that they feel suit their purposes."
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said today that the latest assertions by North Korea were of "serious concern," but he also said that the United States had no evidence to confirm them, and added that American diplomatic efforts with Pyongyang would continue.
In a briefing to foreign reporters in Washington, Mr. Powell appeared to play down the North Korean statement as the latest in a series of alarming-sounding claims made ahead of each of a number of meetings on the Korean nuclear crisis.
"I would say that this is the third time they have told us they just finished reprocessing the rods," he said. "We have no evidence to confirm that."
Mr. Powell added, "The North Koreans go out of their way to make these statements from time to time, and we will continue to pursue diplomacy and not react to each and every one of their statements."
Today, as North Korea's latest wave of harsh language reached this capital, just 35 miles south of the Demilitarized Zone, South Korean diplomats were saying that their isolated, impoverished neighbor had no chance but to return to the negotiating table.
"North Korea is prepared to respond to six-way talks, and they are not in a position to oppose talks," South Korea's vice unification minister, Cho Kun Shik, told reporters at a news briefing today.
"Based on our direct and indirect contacts with North Korean officials and our analysis, we believe that North Korea has a clear will to continue the talks," he said.
North Korea's recent comments, he said, are a "tactic to boost its negotiating power." By claiming to have a nuclear arsenal and the ability to make it grow, the North would gain leverage at talks, expected to resume in Beijing by the end of November. The possession of a half-dozen bombs would also give Pyongyang the luxury of conducting a test.
"One thing we can tell you is that we are in possession of nuclear deterrence and we're continuing to strengthen that deterrence," Mr. Choe, the North Korean diplomat, told reporters in New York.