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(5th LD) N. Korea says it has reached final phase of uranium enrichment

All Headlines 16:36 September 04, 2009

(ATTN: UPDATES with Bosworth's response in paras 18-21, Pyongyang's recent overtures in last 4 paras; MODIFIES lead for clarification)
By Lee Chi-dong and Kim Hyun

SEOUL, Sept. 4 (Yonhap) -- North Korea said Friday it has nearly completed uranium enrichment, a provocative announcement following weeks of conciliatory gestures, as Pyongyang apparently grows impatient at the Obama administration's reluctance to talk bilaterally with Pyongyang outside of the six-nation disarmament talks.

"Experimental uranium enrichment has successfully been conducted and entered into the completion phase," the North's official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said. "Reprocessing of spent fuel rods is in its final phase and extracted plutonium is being weaponized."

The report on what South Korea immediately characterized as "provocations" came less than three months after Pyongyang announced it would commence uranium enrichment and additional plutonium production in response to the tightening U.N. sanctions against Pyongyang.

In a recurring two-track strategy, the KCNA also said the North stands prepared for "both dialogue and sanctions."

It was detailing the contents of a letter by Pyongyang's top U.N envoy to the head of the U.N. Security Council, which imposed a set of tough sanctions on the communist state following its missile and nuclear tests in spring through the adoption of Resolution 1874.

The KCNA said the letter was related to the one sent to North Korea by the U.N. sanctions committee seeking clarification, alluding to the inquiry about a North Korean vessel seized by the United Arab Emirates last month while carrying arms shipment to Iran.

U.N. Ambassador Sin Son-ho said in the letter that his country would have not carried out its second nuclear test in May if the 15-member council had "kept silent" over Pyongyang's long-range rocket launch the month prior, as it did over South Korea's attempted satellite launch in August.

If the U.N. council continues the sanctions drive, the North will be "left with no choice but to take yet stronger self-defensive countermeasures as it had already warned," the KCNA quoted the letter as saying.

Sin was not available for comment, but another official at the North's U.N. mission in New York told Yonhap News Agency, "It is true we sent the letter. All of what the KCNA reported is true."

South Korea's top nuclear envoy, Wi Sung-lac, said North Korea's threats hamper efforts to resume the six-way talks on its nuclear program.

"It is not helpful," Wi said. "I will talk with Special Representative Stephen Bosworth about how to cope with the situation."

Bosworth, Washington's special representative for North Korea policy, was about to fly into Seoul on Friday afternoon from Beijing as part of his regional tour aimed at kick-starting the moribund denuclearization process.

Wi said the North's letter might not be directly related to Bosworth's trip but that the KCNA report may be meant to grab his attention.

The North reportedly extended an invitation to Bosworth to visit Pyongyang for bilateral talks, but the Obama administration rejected it, saying the North should first return to the six-way talks.

The U.S. State Department made clear that Bosworth has no plans to travel to the North during his ongoing regional visit.

Signaling its desire for direct talks with the U.S., the KCNA said, "The denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula is closely related with the U.S. (as) well."

"We have never objected to the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and of the world itself. What we objected to is the structure of the six-way talks which had been used to violate outrageously the DPRK's sovereignty and its right to peaceful development," it added.

Shortly before leaving Beijing, Bosworth expressed concern about Pyongyang's claim.

"Obviously, anything that the North is doing in the area of nuclear development is of concern to us," he told reporters.

He reaffirmed that, "We would be open to bilateral engagement as well, but only within the context of the six-party process and as an effort to help rejuvenate and restart the six-party process."

"I have been reiterating our commitment to dialogue, our willingness to engage in dialogue with DPRK. And that remains very central to our policy," he added. DPRK is the acronym for North Korea's official name, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea.

The South Korean foreign ministry also issued a statement denouncing the North's uranium and plutonium activities.

The secretive North is believed to have 30-40 kilograms of weapons-grade plutonium, enough to make six to eight nuclear bombs, but many see its uranium enrichment, harder to detect but easier to proliferate as more dangerous than plutonium production.

"It is not tolerable," ministry spokesman Moon Tae-young said of North Korea's continued nuclear activities. "The government will deal sternly and consistently with North Korea's threats and provocations."

He added that the North's latest declaration shows its policy on the nuclear issue has not changed despite the recent overtures.

"There has been no ground so far to believe that North Korea has shifted its attitude or policy on the nuclear issue," Moon said. "The announcement this time confirms the fact."

Experts here downplayed it as part of Pyongyang's typical brinkmanship.

"This is a time-honored North Korean pattern -- are you going to let us do the enrichment or settle this through negotiation," Dongguk University professor Koh Yu-hwan said. "But when the verbal warning brings nothing, the North usually takes it into action. Now is the verbal stage, and North Korea will see how the related countries respond."

Government officials said that the North's defiant stance will only make it harder for the Obama administration to soften its stance on Pyongyang.

Washington, trying to engage its adversaries such as Iran and Cuba, has been in a dilemma over how to deal with Pyongyang seeking one-on-one dialogue outside of the six-party disarmament talks joined by South Korea, China, Russia, and Japan.

Critics have attacked the Obama government for having sent former President Bill Clinton to Pyongyang early August to secure the release of two detained American journalists, arguing it sent a wrong message to Pyongyang when it was boycotting the multilateral nuclear talks.

The North fired a rocket in April and claimed it put a satellite into orbit, but the international community see it as a disguised ballistic missile test.

Shortly after the U.N. condemnation of the rocket launch, Pyongyang declared its exit from the six-party talks.

In June, the North said it had begun uranium enrichment and would weaponize all the plutonium it extracted from the country's main nuclear facilities in Yongbyon.

The North has made some overtures since Clinton's visit during which he met with its leader Kim Jong-il. It freed a South Korean worker at the Kaesong industrial park and repatriated four South Korean fishermen whose boat strayed into the North.

Pyongyang also agreed to resume suspended inter-Korean tourism business and allow some families separated by the 1950-53 Korean War to meet briefly.

"I don't think North Korea has a consistent policy line when it comes to its dealings on the nuclear issue and policy on South Korea," a senior South Korean foreign ministry official said, asking not to be named.

A prerequisite for bilateral talks between Washington and Pyongyang is that the North refrain from "bad behavior," he said.

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