(ATTN: UPDATES with S. Korean foreign ministry's comment in paras 7-9))
By Kim Hyun
SEOUL, Nov. 3 (Yonhap) -- North Korea said Tuesday it has completed reprocessing spent fuel rods and made "noticeable successes" in weaponizing plutonium extracted from them in an apparent call for the United States to quickly start bilateral talks.
The announcement, carried by the official Korean Central News Agency, came a day after North Korea warned it would "go its own way" if the U.S. remains unresponsive.
North Korea "successfully completed the reprocessing of 8,000 spent fuel rods by the end of August as part of the measure taken to restore the nuclear facilities in Nyongbyon (Yongbyon) to their original state," the report said.
"Noticeable successes have been made in turning the extracted plutonium weapon-grade for the purpose of bolstering up the nuclear deterrent in the DPRK (North Korea)," it added.
The report did not elaborate what the "successes" were.
The Yongbyon complex, some 90km north of Pyongyang, had been mothballed under a six-nation accord. But Pyongyang said in April that it resumed reprocessing the spent fuel rods from the nuclear complex, in protest against a punitive U.N. resolution for its long-range rocket launch earlier that month.
The South Korean foreign ministry expressed deep regret over the North's announcement, saying it is a violation of its duty to denuclearize as stated in U.N. Resolutions 1718 and 1874.
"We deeply regret North Korea's repeated activities to defy the international community's concerted demand," ministry spokesman Moon Tae-young said in a press release.
Moon stressed that South Korea will closely cooperate with other related countries so North Korea may return to the six-party talks on its denuclearization at an early date and fulfill its duties for denuclearization.
Officials in Seoul said earlier that North Korea has apparently restored the reprocessing facility at the Yongbyon complex.
"The reprocessing factory appears to have been restored to its earlier conditions," a senior defense official told Yonhap on Monday, citing satellite photos that showed a continuous stream of workers in and out of the site in Yongbyon. Another official said that electricity has been detected being supplied to the complex on and off over the past few months.
On Monday, North Korea's foreign ministry stressed that "now is the U.S. turn" as Pyongyang has already expressed its position that bilateral dialogue is a precondition for the resumption of the six-party talks, which also involve South Korea, China, Russia, and Japan. Pyongyang quit the multilateral forum in June in protest against U.N. sanctions imposed on the country for its nuclear test in May.
After months of provocations, the communist regime has sought to reach out to the outside world and invited Stephen Bosworth, the U.S. special representative for North Korea policy, to visit Pyongyang.
The U.S. has been cautious, however, pressing the North to return to the six-party talks.
A rare meeting last week between Ri Gun, the North's deputy nuclear envoy, and Sung Kim, the U.S. special envoy on the six-way talks, in New York and San Diego raised media speculation that the two sides were fine-tuning conditions for Bosworth's visit to North Korea. Some media reports have said Bosworth is likely to visit Pyongyang within the month.
Nuclear scientists believe 8,000 spent fuel rods could give North Korea enough plutonium to build up to two nuclear bombs.
Experts say North Korea was reminding the U.S. of its nuclear capability as it demands dialogue.
"To announce now what was done in August means that it has the purpose of squeezing the U.S. into engaging in dialogue," Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul, said. "The more the U.S. delays, the stronger neo-cons will turn against negotiations within the Obama government."
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