SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA // North Korea said today that it is in the final stages of enriching uranium, a process that could give it a second way to make nuclear bombs in addition to its known plutonium-based programme. North Korean state media said officials had informed the UN Security Council it is forging ahead with its nuclear programmes in spite of international calls to abandon them. "Reprocessing of spent fuel rods is at its final phase and extracted plutonium is being weaponised. Experimental uranium enrichment has successfully been conducted to enter into completion phase," the Korean Central News Agency reported.
The US and North Korea's neighbours had been negotiating for years with the North to dismantle its plutonium-based nuclear programme, which experts say has yielded enough weaponised plutonium for at least half a dozen atomic bombs. North Korea walked away from those talks earlier this year. The US had long suspected that the North also had a covert uranium enrichment programme, which would give it a second source of nuclear material. North Korea for years denied the claim but in response to UN sanctions announced in June that it could enrich uranium. The United States' special envoy on North Korea said any activities in the area of nuclear development are "of concern to us". "These are issues we are dealing with as they arise and we maintain the need for co-operation and dialogue and complete denuclearisation" of the Korean peninsula, Stephen Bosworth said in Beijing during an Asia trip to discuss how to bring North Korea back to disarmament talks. Enriched uranium would provide the North with an easier way to build nuclear bombs compared to reprocessing plutonium. Uranium also can be enriched in relatively inconspicuous factories that are better able to evade spy satellite detection, according to experts in the US and at South Korea's Institute of Nuclear Nonproliferation and Control. Uranium-based bombs may also work without requiring test explosions like the two carried out by North Korea in May and in 2006 for plutonium-based weapons. However, plutonium bombs have more potential to be miniaturised to fit on top of a missile, according to one expert, Ivan Oelrich of the Federation of American Scientists.