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South Korea: No big blast in North Korea
Updated: 2004-09-17 17:17

South Korea's latest assessment of a widely reported explosion in North Korea last week is that there was no blast at all at the suspected site, a vice minister said on Friday.

Seismic signals and strange cloud formations picked up last week were not from an explosion, vice minister of unification, Rhee Bong-jo, told reporters.

Initial reports had even suggested a nuclear test could have been responsible for a mushroom cloud spotted over the North.

Foreign diplomats who visited on Thursday what they were told was the site of a mysterious explosion in North Korea said it was a hydroelectric project under construction. South Korea said they had been in the wrong place.

South Korea said the diplomats had been about 60 miles away from the suspected location in remote Kimhyungjik county on the Chinese border. But the story became even more convoluted when Rhee said there had been no blast at all.

"There is no information to support an explosion in the area where there were indications of an explosion," Rhee said.

North Korea says the explosion was demolition work for a power plant. Rhee said the North's explanation was probably referring to work in Samsu county, where the diplomats went.

"It is likely the peculiar cloud was natural cloud," Rhee said, explaining initial reports of a mushroom cloud. He said seismic activity had probably been around Mount Paektu, on the North Korean-Chinese border even further from Kimhyungjik county.

A Western diplomat briefed by the returning observers said the group had been flown and taken by road to a large construction site in the northern county of Samsu on Thursday.

"There was lots of soil, debris and rocks being transported," the diplomat said.

So far none of the diplomats on the tour has expressed doubts about the location. Britain said it needed to await the findings.

"On Monday night, the diplomats were told they would be taken to Samsu, which the North Koreans said was the site of the explosion and that is where they were taken," British ambassador to North Korea David Slinn told Reuters.

The diplomats inspected the site in Samsu for 90 minutes and were allowed to take photographs, British Foreign Office minister Bill Rammell said in a statement.

"The information they gathered will be reported back to technical experts in capitals. We now need to await their findings," Rammell said.

The group was told the blasts were conducted last Wednesday and Thursday, not just on one day as initially reported by foreign media, the Western diplomat said.

European Union ambassadors met on Friday to discuss what was seen, the diplomat said.

North Korean Foreign Minister Paek Nam-sun told Rammell on Monday the reported explosion was part of work to remove a mountain to make way for a hydroelectric project and agreed to allow diplomats to tour the site.

Secretary of State Colin Powell said on Tuesday North Korea's explanation squared with Washington's view.

Polish Ambassador Wojciech Kaluza said the North Korean project manager told the diplomats there were 50,000 workers at the site and gave figures on the size of the project, the amount of explosives used and the amount of soil that had to be removed, Japan's Kyodo news agency reported.

It quoted Germany's envoy as saying more blasts were planned.

The United States, North Korea, South Korea, Japan, Russia and China have been holding talks with the North on its suspected nuclear weapons programs. They have made little progress.

Another round of talks was to have been held in Beijing before the end of September, but this is now seen as unlikely.

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