updated 9/15/2004 4:06:44 PM ET 2004-09-15T20:06:44

Britain’s ambassador to North Korea says he and diplomats from eight other countries will travel Thursday to the site of an explosion that shot a mushroom cloud into the sky to verify claims it was caused by planned blasting for a hydroelectric project.

British officials had said the visit to the site of the Sept. 9 blast might happen as early as Tuesday, but Ambassador David Slinn said it was delayed by the difficulty of arranging travel to the remote area in the country’s northeast.

“It’s in an isolated part of the country,” Slinn said Wednesday by telephone from the North’s capital, Pyongyang. “It requires a plane ride and a two- to three-hour trip” in an off-road vehicle.

Slinn said he would be joined by diplomats from the Pyongyang embassies of Germany, Sweden, the Czech Republic, Poland, Russia, India and Mongolia. North Korea’s Foreign Ministry “has worked hard and cooperated well on putting it together,” he said.

The size of the reported explosion and its timing, coming on the 56th anniversary of North Korea’s founding, had raised speculation that it might be a nuclear test.

Experts from the United States and elsewhere say they don’t believe the blast near the Chinese border was a nuclear test. But a Bush administration official said the United States has indications the North is trying to conduct one.

British Foreign Office Minister Bill Rammell, who visited Pyongyang this week, told reporters that the North’s foreign minister told him the blast was part of demolition work for a hydroelectric project and wasn’t a nuclear explosion.

'Preposterous smear campaign'
North Korea denounced the speculation over a possible nuclear test as part of a “preposterous smear campaign” aimed at diverting world attention away from revelations about past South Korean nuclear activities.

The incident occurred as diplomats from the United States, China, the two Koreas, Japan and Russia were trying to arrange for another round of talks by the end of the month aimed at persuading North Korea to give up its nuclear ambitions.

Rammell said Tuesday that the North, while still committed to the six-nation discussions, wasn’t ready to set a date to meet again.

South Korean officials were investigating the explosion, and a Cabinet minister said the government would look into whether the site was suitable for a hydroelectric project.

Defense Minister Yoon Kwang-woong said it was highly unlikely the North would conduct a nuclear test near its border with ally China but that it was still too early to accept the North’s explanation.

On Wednesday, South Korea’s main intelligence agency said the mushroom-shaped cloud might have been natural, rather than the product of an explosion.

“There is a possibility that it was an unusual form of natural cloud, given the weather conditions there at the time, besides the possibility of blasting to build a hydroelectric power plant,” the National Intelligence Service said in a report to the National Assembly. It posted the brief report on its Web site.

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