updated 4/29/2004 4:19:14 AM ET 2004-04-29T08:19:14

The six nations negotiating the North Korean nuclear standoff will hold low-level meetings May 12 in Beijing to lay the groundwork for the next round of talks, South Korea and China said Thursday.

The apparent breakthrough comes as the United States reportedly prepares to upgrade its estimate of North Korea's nuclear arsenal to at least eight atomic weapons, from its long-standing estimate of "possibly two."

The report, disputed by Seoul, is being prepared by U.S. intelligence officials to account for strides North Korea has made since last year, when it restarted its nuclear reactor and plutonium reprocessing facility in Yongbyon, the Washington Post reported Wednesday, citing unnamed officials involved in the estimate overhaul.

The officials have also concluded that a separate uranium-based nuclear program will be operational by 2007, producing enough material for as many as six additional weapons a year, the report said.

An upgrade would be seen as upping pressure on other participants in the six-nation negotiations to back Washington at the table. U.S. State Department spokesman Adam Ereli called the report "speculative."

In Seoul, South Korean Deputy Foreign Minister Lee Soo-hyuck quoted U.S. authorities as saying that the Washington Post report was "groundless."

Lee said that an estimate of eight nuclear bombs is based on the assumption that the communist state has reprocessed all its 8,000 spent nuclear fuel rods.

The rods, if chemically treated, can yield enough plutonium for several bombs. North Korea says it has reprocessed all and is already increasing its "nuclear deterrent." Speaking at a news conference, Lee said: "There is no scientific proof that the North has reprocessed all the 8,000 rods."

South Korea believes the rival North has enough nuclear material to build one or two nuclear bombs, slightly different from the U.S. view that Pyongyang already built one or two bombs.

Lee said that the six nations involved in resolving the dispute -- the United States, China, the two Koreas, Russia and Japan -- are scheduled to begin working level talks May 12 in the Chinese capital.

In Beijing, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Kong Quan said the "fundamental goal" of the so-called working-group meetings was to prepare for a third round of six-party talks to be held by the end of June.

He said North Korean leader Kim Jong Il's trip to Beijing last week helped the process. "His visit and the various efforts of various parties benefited the convening of six-party talks," Kong said at a briefing.

Lee said South Korea, the United States and Japan would consider giving the North energy aid if it freezes all its nuclear facilities, including those for power generation, with the condition that it will eventually completely dismantle them.

"As we go into these talks, our principal position remains the same and unchanged, that North Korea should dismantle its nuclear facilities completely and that we cannot tolerate North Korea possessing nuclear weapons," Lee said.

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