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Talks aimed at defusing the North Korean crisis may be scrubbed after Pyongyang's announcement yesterday that it has started extracting weapons-grade plutonium from thousands of spent fuel rods.

U.S. officials were scrambling in the wake of the latest North Korean escalation of the nuclear-weapons crisis, even as the reclusive regime insisted it still wanted face-to-face discussions with the Bush administration.

"We are successfully reprocessing more than 8,000 spent fuel rods," said a statement carried yesterday on the North Korean government's official news agency.

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It remained unclear whether the claim was yet another bluff in the high-stakes nuclear-weapons game, coming only five days after President George W. Bush cited the forthcoming talks as evidence that "we are making good progress in North Korea."

U.S. officials said Washington would consult with Japan, South Korea and China before deciding whether to proceed with the talks scheduled for next week in Beijing.

"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," said Claire Buchan, a spokeswoman for Mr. Bush, who is spending the weekend at his ranch in Texas.

Both sides seemed to be seeking a solution in recent weeks, agreeing to trilateral talks held in Beijing. Mr. Bush has repeatedly said he believes a diplomatic solution is possible.

But North Korea's latest statement said it needed a "powerful deterrent" to protect itself after the sort of U.S.-led war that toppled Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq. Along with Iran and Iraq, North Korea was named by Mr. Bush as part of an "axis of evil" - rogue states that support terrorism and are seeking weapons of mass destruction.

The statement also seemed to be a direct challenge to U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, who has warned that "if they begin reprocessing, that changes the entire political landscape."

The North Korean statement was also seen by some as a retort to tough language used by Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld earlier this week when he bluntly rejected any hope that the Bush administration would make further concessions to Pyongyang.

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"There's no price that we would be willing to pay, that they would be willing to accept to stop engaging in what they're doing with respect to the development of nuclear weapons," Mr. Rumsfeld said.

As they struggled to cope with the latest North Korean gambit, senior U.S. officials said there was neither independent confirmation nor any indication from U.S. intelligence agencies that Pyongyang had actually begun reprocessing fuel rods into weapons-grade plutonium.

U.S. intelligence agencies believe Pyongyang already possesses one or two nuclear warheads. It is also developing long-range missiles that could reach Hawaii and, eventually, the west coast of the United States.

North Korea has repeatedly challenged the United States in recent months, although most analysts believe the actions were posturing rather than designs to provoke a military response.

The most serious incident occurred when four North Korean MiG fighter jets intercepted an unarmed U.S. spy plane over international waters in March.

North Korea admitted last fall to a secret and outlawed nuclear-weapons program and then abruptly announced plans to restart a reactor capable of producing weapon-grade plutonium.

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The Bush administration has maintained an uncompromising line, insisting there will be no concessions and no payoffs to persuade North Korea to abandon its nuclear-weapons program. However, Washington seems to have little leverage over the Pyongyang regime, and is now counting on the Chinese government, North Korea's sole international friend and largest source of aid, to exert pressure.

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