North Korea raised the stakes at six-party negotiations in Beijing by saying it is preparing to publicly declare itself a nuclear power and may move to prove its capabilities through nuclear testing, administration officials in Washington tell CNN.
The Bush White House tried to play down the development Thursday, saying it was getting "excellent" cooperation from its partners in the talks and that North Korea has a "history of making inflammatory comments that serve to isolate it from the world."
The question from the U.S. administration standpoint, the official said, is "whether this is a serious and irreversible statement or part of their past pattern of starting every conversation by being threatening to see if it wins them something."
In July, a Japanese newspaper quoted Japanese and North Korean sources as saying Pyongyang was prepared to conduct a nuclear test unless the United States responded positively to its proposals for resolving the nuclear crisis. (Full story)
"Reports back to us from the delegation are that they (North Korea) said they were preparing to declare themselves a nuclear nation and contemplating testing," the administration official told CNN Thursday.
The official said the North Koreans also told the meeting participants that they had the means to deliver nuclear weapons.
"My understanding is that it was done in what our people called a somewhat agitated way -- in the context of their view that we are hostile toward them and this is how they plan to respond," the official said.
Another administration official told CNN North Korea said that "our (U.S.) hostile policy" had "left the DPRK (North Korea) no choice but to declare its possession of nuclear weapons" and said it "would conduct a nuclear weapons test."
Earlier Thursday in Beijing, delegates at the talks on North Korea's nuclear program ended a second day of formal discussions with little indication any party had significantly shifted its position.
After the formal six-nation talks ended mid-afternoon local time, envoys from North and South Korea, Japan, Russia, China and the United States were expected to continue meetings during a series of informal discussions through Thursday and into Friday.
Japan and North Korea held a bilateral meet on the sidelines of Thursday's talks, Japan's top government spokesman Yasuo Fukuda told reporters.
Fukuda said Japan called for a resolution of the nuclear standoff between North Korea and the United States and urged Pyongyang to return the families of Japanese abducted by the North decades ago.
"On the nuclear problem, Japan laid out its position. On abductees, Japan asked strongly that the families of the five abductees be quickly brought to Japan," Fukuda said.
However, plans for any formal bilateral talks between North Korea and the United States were ruled out by U.S. officials, despite an informal 40-minute meeting Wednesday between Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly and his North Korean counterpart, Deputy Foreign Minister Kim Yong Il.
U.S. officials have played down the importance of the North-U.S. meeting.
"There are not separate, individual, bilateral discussions going on," White House spokeswoman Claire Buchan said in Washington.
She said the U.S. went into the multi-party talks knowing "nothing precludes conversations across the table between the two parties."
Also in Washington, State Department deputy spokesman Philip Reeker described the Kelly-Kim meeting as an "informal exchange."
Though Reeker did not rule out the possibility of another such exchange, he said no separate "formal bilateral" meetings between the two sides would take place.
North Korea has been pushing for direct face-to-face talks with Washington since the nuclear crisis flared up last October when Washington said Pyongyang admitted to restarting a nuclear weapons program it had supposedly shut down.
The United States has maintained the issue must be resolved via multi-nation diplomacy and has demanded North Korea shut down the nuclear program immediately.
Pyongyang says it won't take such measures until it gets a guarantee from Washington that the United States will not attack.
Security has been heightened in Beijing's embassy districts.
The six-nation talks, hosted at the exclusive Diaoyutai State Guest House, wrap up on Friday and the general consensus is an agreement to hold further talks will be the best outcome from this meeting.
The Beijing meet is being seen as an opportunity for Washington and its allies South Korea and Japan, as well as China and Russia, to present their views to North Korea and hear from Pyongyang about its concerns.
Little has emerged on what has taken place during the talks, which came about after months of diplomatic scrambling and maneuvering, particularly by China -- North Korea's political ally and a economic partner of the U.S. -- who agreed to host the meeting.
But among the developments Wednesday, Japan presented a framework for solving the crisis, a Japanese Foreign Ministry official at the talks told CNN.
The framework says that the development, possession or transfer of nuclear weapons by North Korea can "in no way" be tolerated.
It calls for North Korea to comply with all the requirements of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, promptly dismantle its nuclear weapons program and allow for verification that the program is gone.
In return, North Korea would be assured that no country is pursuing hostile intent or wishes to change the regime in Pyongyang. (Nations' stances)
Meanwhile, Kyodo news service quoted Japanese government officials as saying the U.S. delegation had rejected North Korea's key precondition that the two countries sign a non-aggression treaty.
There was no immediate confirmation of that report.
In a commentary in North Korea's state-run media on Wednesday, Pyongyang said the fate of the talks depended entirely on "whether the U.S. has a will to drop its hostile policy toward" North Korea.
The commentary warned Washington to also refrain from putting up "unreasonable conditions" for North Korea.