By Jack Kim
SEOUL (Reuters) - A huge explosion in North Korea last week was a deliberate blast to pave the way for a hydro-electric dam, Pyongyang said Monday.
Washington and Seoul have said the explosion was unlikely to have been a nuclear weapons test. South Korean media said an accident at an underground munitions depot or a weapons factory was a likely explanation for possibly two blasts.
A British minister visiting Pyongyang said late Monday that the North Korean authorities had agreed to allow foreign envoys to visit the scene and see for themselves.
South Korea's financial markets, which can react sharply to developments in the North, had ignored the blast reports, which came as diplomats were seeking to persuade Pyongyang to return this month to six-party talks on its nuclear weapons programs.
"It was no nuclear explosion or an accident. It was a deliberate controlled detonation to demolish a mountain in the far north of the country," a BBC correspondent in Pyongyang with British Foreign Office minister Bill Rammell quoted North Korean Foreign Minister Paek Nam-sun as saying.
Britain's Press Association gave similar details in a pool report and China's Xinhua news agency quoted a North Korean Foreign Ministry official as giving the same explanation.
Paek, who was providing the first North Korean word on the explosion, said it was part of a construction project to build a hydro-electric dam in the remote mountainous region of Ryanggang on the Chinese border.
The BBC said that when Paek was asked why North Korea had not explained earlier about the blasts he told Rammell Pyongyang had not done so because all foreign journalists were liars.
Later in the day, Rammell, the most senior British official to visit the North, told accompanying journalists that Pyongyang had agreed to let Western diplomats visit the site of the blast.
"Having asked the vice foreign minister this morning for our ambassador and other ambassadors to be allowed to visit the scene of the explosion, I am very pleased the North Koreans have agreed to the request," he said, according to a pool report to London.
Rammell added that London's envoy, David Slinn, might be able to visit the site as early as Tuesday.
South Korean Unification Minister Chung Dong-young told a parliamentary committee Monday "a peculiar cloud" and seismic activities were detected in separate areas that may be from unrelated incidents some 100 to 120 km (60 to 75 miles) apart.
MISSILE BASES IN AREA
South Korean media did not home in on the possibility of controlled explosions for building work.
South Korean intelligence detected two explosions on the night of Sept. 8 to 9, the JoongAng Ilbo newspaper in Seoul said, suggesting a possible accident at a military factory or a munitions depot.
The area in Ryanggang that borders China was known to have a secret missile base but the site of the accident was some way from there, the source was quoted as saying.
Analyst Kim Tae-woo at the Korea Institute for Defense Analysis said it was probably an accident.
"Rodong missile bases are located in the blast area, and extremely explosive liquid fuel, which is also very flammable, is used in production and in operation of missiles," Kim said. "I believe it was a mere accident triggered by mishandling."
A train blast in April in the Ryongchon rail station, close to North Korea's northwestern border with China, killed at least 170 people. That was believed to have been sparked by careless handling of explosive materials.
Analyst Kim Kyung-sool at Korea Energy Economics Institute said Ryanggang offers rich resources for hydroelectric power with several smaller plants in place but there had been no reports of a larger-scale project.
The North's state television last week showed footage of what it said was the construction site for a hydroelectric power plant about 60 km (40 miles) east of the reported explosion. The video showed earthmovers with rugged mountains in the background.
U.S. officials, including Secretary of State Colin Powell, played down the possibility of a nuclear test.
North Korea is believed to be developing nuclear weapons, and Washington has said it may already have one or two or even more.
The New York Times reported in its Sunday editions the Bush administration had received recent intelligence reports that some experts believed could indicate that North Korea was preparing to conduct its first nuclear weapons test explosion.
The news broke as South Korea, Japan, China, Russia and the United States sought to persuade Pyongyang to resume talks on its nuclear ambitions. The North, which threatened at earlier talks to test an atomic bomb, says it sees no need for more talks.