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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

N. Korea Processes Spent Fuel

PANMUNJOM, South Korea -- North Korea raised the stakes in a nuclear standoff Thursday by saying for the first time it had processed fuel rods for use in making atomic bombs. But most 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 United States remained hostile to the communist 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 United States 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.

He said China would insist that North Korea participate in more six-way talks including Japan, Russia, South Korea and the United States and predicted that they would take place in November after this month's APEC summit of Pacific Rim leaders in Bangkok.

"If it unequivocally refuses China's demand, China's attitude will become more stern. And under the current conditions, if China changes its attitude, North Korea will feel extremely heavy pressure, pressure it will not be able to resist," he said.

At the truce village of Panmunjom on Thursday, at the heart of the heavily fortified Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ, bisecting the peninsula, there was no sign of diplomatic drama.

North Korea'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 his country had a deterrent but would not give its size. Washington has said North Korea could have one or two atom bombs.

The reprocessing, if confirmed, would be a significant development in North Korea's nuclear program since the rods can provide plutonium to make fissile material and had been sealed under a 1994 agreement with the United States.

"We will reprocess more spent fuel rods to be churned out in an unbroken chain from the 5 MW [megawatt] nuclear reactor in Yongbyon without delay when we deem it necessary," the statement said, referring to North Korea's nuclear plant.

Washington has been anxious about North Korea's nuclear capabilities since a year ago, when Pyongyang said it had enriched uranium. It later expelled UN inspectors, pulled out of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and put its Yongbyon plant, where the rods are stored, back online.

Diplomats say it is impossible to verify conclusively whether the rods have been processed as North Korea says, leaving the statement still in the rhetorical realm.

"That's the whole point," one diplomat in Seoul said. "At the moment there is no verification."