Talks next week aimed at resolving the crisis over nuclear programs in North Korea were thrown into doubt Friday after the communist state released conflicting statements about whether it has taken the dramatic step of reprocessing spent nuclear fuel rods into enriched material for weapons.
The North Korean statements, which differed in the English and Korean versions, reopened a fierce debate within the Bush administration about the wisdom of proceeding with the negotiations. But by last night, U.S. officials began to believe the North Korean government was simply signaling it planned to take a tough stance in the talks.
The English version left little doubt that North Korea had crossed a threshold that the United States and other countries in the region had warned would have grave consequences.
"We are successfully reprocessing more than 8,000 spent fuel rods at the final phase," said the English version, provided by North Korea's Foreign Ministry. It said the lesson of the U.S. war in Iraq is that North Korea must possess a "powerful physical deterrent" to the United States.
The Korean-language version, however, implied reprocessing had not begun. "We are successfully completing the final phase to the point of the reprocessing operation for some 8,000 spent fuel rods," it said, according to a U.S. government translation.
U.S. officials also said satellite imagery had not detected signs that North Korea had begun to reprocess 8,000 spent fuel rods from an aged nuclear reactor. Analysts have said the fuel rods can be turned into material for two to three nuclear bombs within a few months.
In both languages, the statement declared that the carefully negotiated talks involving the United States, North Korea and China would actually be one-on-one negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang, giving ammunition to administration skeptics. The Bush administration has said it would not engage in bilateral negotiations.
"We will look like fools if we get on a plane and go to those talks," one U.S. official said, arguing for delay. "This sends a signal to the rest of the world that North Korea is not interested in seriously negotiating."
The Bush administration had long insisted on multilateral talks involving key nations in the region. Yet in a significant concession -- arranged secretly with President Bush's approval by Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, bypassing the usual National Security Council process -- the administration agreed to attend talks in Beijing next Wednesday through Friday with only China, North Korea and the United States in attendance.
On Friday, foes of Powell's deal in the Defense Department and elsewhere in the administration pressed to take advantage of the debate over the statements to sidetrack the talks, which would be the first substantive discussion between North Korea and the United States since October, when U.S. officials reported that North Korea had admitted the existence of another, uranium-based nuclear program.
"North Korea is the most contentious, bitter subject in U.S. policy," an official said.
Late Friday, administration officials said they were still studying the statement before deciding on a response. "We're consulting with other interested parties, including [South] Korea, Japan and China on where we go from here," White House spokeswoman Claire Buchan told reporters in Crawford, Tex., where President Bush is spending Easter weekend. "Once we have a clear sense of the facts and the views of our friends and allies, we'll make a decision about how to proceed."
[In another development, North Korea renewed its offer to South Korea to hold ministerial talks April 27-29 in Pyongyang, the South Korean Unification Ministry said early Saturday.]
A senior U.S. official said last night that officials were coming to the conclusion that this was a "nasty statement confirming the talks" and that it was "not the best way to begin discussions."
Both Japanese and South Korean officials said the talks should go on, and called the Korean-language version of the statements less alarming than the English. "There is still much ambiguity," said Hatsuhisa Takashima, spokesman for the Japanese Foreign Ministry. "We read this as them getting inch-by-inch closer to reprocessing, but that nothing has started yet."
In Seoul, a South Korean official agreed: "If you read the Korean version, it's not very clear what they are saying. But according to our intelligence, there are no signs North Korea is reprocessing fuel rods."
The North Korean government generally takes great care in vetting statements before they are released.
Daniel A. Pinkston, a Korean language specialist at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, noting the differences in the English and Korean versions of Pyongyang's statement, said he believed the North Korean government was signaling to the Bush administration that it should negotiate seriously in Beijing, or else reprocessing would begin.
Both versions also went to some length to dispel the Bush administration's public contention that the three-way talks next week would be the multilateral negotiations Washington had demanded, and not the one-on-one talks that North Korea sought.
"The Chinese side will play a relevant role as the host state," said the English statement, carried by North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency. But it noted, "The essential issues related to the settlement of the nuclear issue will be discussed between [North Korea] and the United States."
Pinkston said that section of the Korean and English versions was the same, and officials in Washington said it caused heartburn within the administration. Bush has made it a point of pride that the United States would never agree to bilateral negotiations with the North Koreans.
Japanese and South Korean officials expressed surprise that the North Koreans would so bluntly dismiss the Chinese role in the talks and shred the "multilateral" veil of the talks so important to the Bush administration.
"The North Koreans have to be very, very careful about their relations with China," a Japanese official said.
The United States and all of North Korea's neighbors have said it is unacceptable to allow the militaristic government to possess nuclear weapons. They fear it might use them, sell them or prompt an arms race in Asia as other countries develop nuclear weapons.
Struck reported from Tokyo.