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N. Korea 'reprocessing fuel rods'

Spent nuclear fuel rods in cooling pond, Yongbyon, North Korea.

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PYONGYANG, North Korea (CNN) -- North Korea said Friday it was in the final stages of reprocessing thousands of spent nuclear fuel rods.

The announcement came just three days before talks with the United States and China scheduled were to begin.

If true, experts say the effort quickly could yield enough nuclear material for several nuclear weapons.

But U.S. officials told CNN they have no intelligence so far to back up North Korea's claim that it has begun reprocessing nuclear fuel rods, and State Department spokesman Richard Boucher called the statement "ambiguous."

"Frankly, it's not clear exactly what it means," Boucher said. The statement includes "some imprecision in the language about the status of reprocessing," he said.

A North Korean government spokesman announced Friday that it was "successfully reprocessing more than 8,000 spent fuel rods at the final phase ... after resuming our nuclear activities from December last year," the state news agency KCNA reported.

The announcement comes just days before U.S., North Korean and Chinese officials are scheduled to hold talks on the North Korean nuclear standoff in Beijing. U.S. officials said they would repeat a demand for North Korea to abandon its nuclear program and resume compliance with Non-Proliferation Treaty obligations.

Boucher said the U.S. would continue to consult with regional allies South Korea, China and Japan on the matter. He declined to speculate on whether the announcement by North Korea would prompt the U.S. to cancel the talks.

"At this point we are evaluating the statement," he said. "There is nothing new to say about the talks."

Official reaction from South Korea has been muted. Some officials said they had seen no signs of fuel rods being reprocessed. But a senior Bush administration source said earlier the statement has placed next week's talks in jeopardy.

"This is really sand in our eyes to say this the week before the talks," one official said.

The Bush administration sees the announcement as a North Korean attempt to strengthen its bargaining position.

"This is the perverse way they think," the official said, using unusually strong language for diplomacy. "They think they can get leverage."

Last October, the United States accused North Korea of secretly pursuing a nuclear weapons program despite a 1994 agreement to freeze those efforts and said North Korean officials admitted to the program.

North Korea denied the allegation, saying it was restarting a nuclear reactor at Yongbyon solely to provide electricity to the impoverished nation. But U.S. officials say there is no peaceful purpose to reprocessing spent fuel rods.

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. Meanwhile, a U.S.-led invasion has ousted the government of Iraq -- one of three countries, along with Iran and North Korea, that President Bush labeled an "axis of evil" in 2002.

"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 Friday.

U.S. officials have said North Korea had renewed its nuclear weapons program before Bush's "axis of evil" speech.

Next week's meeting had been billed by the United States as a concession from North Korea, which had demanded one-on-one talks with the United States while threatening to move ahead with its nuclear weapons program.

The United States had refused to engage in talks that excluded other countries in the region, refusing to give in to North Korea's "nuclear blackmail."

-- CNN Seoul Bureau Chief Sohn Jie-Ae, National Security Correspondent David Ensor and State Department Producer Elise Labott contributed to this story.

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