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Pyongyang is in ‘final phase’ of uranium program

North’s envoy tells Security Council about its ‘weaponized’ plutonium  PLAY AUDIO

Sept 05,2009
Anti-North Korea protestors chant slogans denouncing North Korea’s nuclear program at a rally in Seoul, yesterday. North Korea said it was closer to a second way of making nuclear weapons, a move analysts see as a new tactic to put pressure on the international community after a month of conciliatory gestures. [REUTERS]
North Korea said yesterday its uranium enrichment program for nuclear weapons production has entered its final phase and that it is making more weapons from extracted plutonium. The North also claimed it is prepared for both dialogue and punitive measures.

“Experimental uranium enrichment has successfully been conducted to enter into the completion phase,” reported the state-run Korean Central News Agency, quoting a letter sent by Sin Son-ho, the top North Korean envoy at the United Nations, to the UN Security Council. “The reprocessing of spent fuel rods is at its final phase and extracted plutonium is being weaponized.”

The announcement comes three months after Pyongyang declared the commencement of the uranium enrichment process. In June, hours after the drafting of the UN Security Council Resolution 1874 condemning the North’s nuclear test in May, Pyongyang said, “Enough success has been made in developing uranium enrichment technology to provide nuclear fuel to allow the experimental procedure.”

Prior to that, the North had denied it was operating a secret uranium enrichment program, though U.S. intelligence officials had long suspected its existence. Such a program can be difficult for satellites to detect because it is conducted underground.

Sin yesterday admitted to reporters in New York that he’d written the letter. He said the dispatch was in response to a “request for a clarification” from the sanctions committee at the Security Council.

He declined to elaborate further, brushing off questions and saying, “You should ask the Security Council.” In August, the United Arab Emirates seized a shipment of North Korean weapons bound for Iran and notified the Security Council of its move.

In the letter, Sin reiterated the North’s position that it would not be bound by Resolution 1874, which authorizes UN member states to inspect cargo ships suspected of carrying prohibited weapons or related materials.

“We do not feel, therefore, any need to respond to the request made by the UNSC ‘committee,’” the letter read.

Sin also stressed that Pyongyang is “prepared for both dialogue and sanctions.” In July, Sin had said North Korea is “not against dialogue,” implying its desire for bilateral talks with the United States.

Washington, however, has countered that it would only meet Pyongyang one-on-one within the framework of the six-party nuclear disarmament talks. North Korea has this year repeatedly said it would not return to that setting.

But in yesterday’s dispatch, Sin blamed the structural problems of the six-party talks as the reason for North Korea’s refusal to return to the table.

“We have never objected to the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula and of the world itself,” Sin wrote. “What we objected to is the structure of the six-way talks, which have been used to violate outrageously the DPRK’s [North Korea’s] sovereignty and its right to peaceful development.”

The letter also pointed out that “The denuclearization of the Korean peninsula is closely related with the U.S. nuclear policy toward the DPRK [North Korea],” hinting that Washington had to alter its policy on Pyongyang before the North could begin working toward nuclear dismantlement.

The South Korean Foreign Ministry found the latest North Korean statement “intolerable” and accused Pyongyang of “taking backward steps” on the implementation of the Security Council resolutions.

“The latest North Korean actions present a direct challenge to the international community’s determined efforts to ensure peace and stability in the region,” said ministry spokesman Moon Tae-young. “We will continue to closely coordinate with our allies to realize complete denuclearization and will respond with consistency against North Korean threats and provocations.”

In August, North Korea made a series of conciliatory gestures. It released two American journalists who were captured in March, freed from detention an engineer and the four fishermen from South Korea. Pyongyang has also eased border restrictions on South Koreans and sent a delegation to pay respects for the late South Korean President Kim Dae-jung. That delegation later exchanged views on inter-Korean relations with President Lee Myung-bak at a meeting. The two Koreas have also set up a reunion for separated families later this month.

When asked if the latest letter signaled any change in tune, Moon said North Korea had maintained the same stance on nuclear weapons.

“There’s nothing to suggest that the North has ever altered its attitude or policy on the nuclear issue,” the spokesman said. “The letter serves as a reminder that North Korea still hasn’t changed.”

The official U.S. reaction wasn’t immediately available. But Stephen Bosworth, the U.S. special representative to Pyongyang, told reporters in Beijing that the North’s claim for the near completion of uranium enrichment was a cause for concern.

“Obviously, anything that the North is doing in the area of nuclear development is of concern to us,” Bosworth said, before departing for Seoul yesterday. “I think for all of us, it reconfirms the necessity to maintain a coordinated position on the need for complete, verifiable denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”

Bosworth is on an Asian trip that will wrap up with a stop in Tokyo, as part of efforts to continue consultations with U.S. dialogue partners in the region. He is scheduled to meet with South Korean nuclear officials on the weekend.

A Foreign Ministry official who handles nuclear issues said he didn’t think the North letter was timed for Bosworth’s trip, but added, “It’s certainly not helpful but it would get his attention.”

Yun Duk-min, a professor at the Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security, said the letter was probably intended to pressure the United States to sit down for bilateral talks.

“This was a warning or a threat that North Korea could take even more serious steps unless the United States holds bilateral discussions,” Yun said. “As the next step, the North may even carry out uranium-related experiments.”

Kim Yong-hyun, professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University, said the North may have wanted to show it was still in control of the nuclear issue.

“As the United States tries to push for both sanctions and dialogue, the North said it wasn’t going to be simply dragged along,” he said. “I think they wanted to show they still have leverage to drive the situation to the brink.”


By Yoo Jee-ho [jeeho@joongang.co.kr]




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