LONDON, England (CNN) — North Korea has said a large mushroom cloud seen over the nation in satellite images was the result of a deliberate demolition of a mountain for a power plant.
After several days of speculation over the cause of the massive cloud, North Korean Foreign Minister Paek Nam Sun offered the explanation in a meeting with British Foreign Office Minister Bill Rammell.
“The foreign minister told Rammell that the large explosion several days ago was part of a planned demolition of a mountain for the construction of a hydroelectric plant,” according to a statement Monday from the British Foreign Office.
“North Korea’s foreign minister says suggestions that it was anything else are lies,” the statement said.
Rammell has asked that international diplomats be allowed to inspect the site, and the Foreign Office said North Korea has agreed to consider the request.
The South Korean news agency Yonhap reported seeing a mushroom cloud 4 kilometers (2 miles) wide over the border area between North Korea and China in Yanggang Province on satellite images Thursday.
American and South Korean officials immediately played down the possibility the cloud was evidence of a nuclear weapons test, with one U.S. official telling CNN it was “no big deal” and could be from a forest fire.
But conspiracy theories were rife about what triggered the cloud on September 9, the anniversary of North Korea’s founding.
Pyongyang traditionally uses the occasion to stage events to bolster national pride and show its superiority, and top Bush advisers concede there is intelligence the communist state may be preparing a nuclear test.
The U.S. periodically receives reports North Korea wants to test its nuclear capability, but senior officials say the reclusive regime’s plans are hard to decipher.
Until Monday’s statement, secretive North Korea had not officially responded to what may have triggered the cloud.
But the nation has come under the global spotlight for its covert nuclear program, revealed almost two years ago. October surprises
America’s national security adviser has suggested that North Korean leader Kim Jong Il’s motive for any nuclear test could be to affect the U.S. election.
“The North Koreans would only succeed in isolating themselves further if they’re somehow trying to gain negotiating leverage or their own October surprise,” said Condoleeza Rice.
“October surprises” have been engineered before, timed for the closing days of the U.S. presidential races.
U.S. President George W. Bush is holding out for verifiable dismantlement, and North Korea may think his Democratic opponent, John Kerry, would have a different agenda.
“Their immediate goal is to hope Sen. Kerry prevails because they think he would be a more flexible negotiating partner,” said Mike O’Hanlon from the Brookings Institution. ‘Nuclear 9/11’
On Sunday, Kerry said “a potential route to a nuclear 9/11 is clearly visible” because of Bush’s North Korea policy.
One Kerry adviser argued that by attacking Iraq, the U.S. has emboldened Pyongyang.
“They get the wrong message out of Iraq. You know, we invade countries that don’t have nuclear weapons and we don’t invade those that do,” said former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright.
Kerry has accused Bush of taking his eye off the ball with North Korea, which the Central Intelligence Agency thinks already has a handful of nuclear weapons.
The White House insists diplomacy is still the best strategy, although officials say the president never takes military action off the table.
Yonhap reported the explosion happened near the site of the Yongjori missile base — a large facility with an underground missile firing range.
According to data gathered by the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), Yongjori is a suspected site for North Korea’s uranium enrichment program.
NTI is a private charity, funded by CNN founder Ted Turner, dedicated to lessen the threat posed by weapons of mass destruction — nuclear, chemical and biological — around the globe, according to its Web site.
CNN Radio, CNN National Security Correspondent David Ensor and Correspondent Sohn Jie-Ae contributed to this report.