Last updated: September 4, 2009 12:27 pm

N Korean claims annoy US and Seoul

US and South Korean officials expressed annoyance on Friday after North Korea announced it was in the final stage of enriching uranium and weaponising plutonium.

The uranium programme gives the North a second path to making a nuclear weapon. It has already set off two plutonium-fuelled explosions, with the second occurring in May.

Stephen Bosworth, US special envoy for North Korea, said in Beijing on Friday that, “Obviously, anything that the North is doing in the area of nuclear development is of concern to us.”

He added: “I think for all of us, it reconfirms the necessity to maintain a co-ordinated position on the need for complete, verifiable denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula.”

The US has long suspected the North of having a secret programme to enrich uranium for possible use in nuclear weapons, but officials add that they have little idea of how extensive it is. Many experts maintain that Pyongyang has not developed anything near a full-scale enrichment programme.

“Experimental uranium enrichment has successfully been conducted to enter into completion phase,” the North’s KCNA news agency quoted its United Nations delegation as saying in a letter to the head of the UN Security Council.

South Korea’s foreign ministry called the letter’s claims “intolerable” and said “the government will take a stern and consistent response to North Korea’s threats and provocations.”

Russia, which was part of talks with the two Koreas, the US, Japan and China over North Korea’s nuclear programme, also expressed concern about Pyongyang’s claims. ”A very alarming precedent is being created by such an open and demonstrative disdain for resolutions of the UN Security Council,” a foreign ministry official told Interfax news agency.

Uranium enrichment is a complicated process, requiring thousand of centrifuges to spin in perfect synchronisation at supersonic speeds. Iran, a far wealthier country, has faced many technical challenges shifting from experimental work to full industrial production.

It is uncertain where Pyongyang would have acquired so many centrifuges, as the black-market network of Abdul Qadeer Khan, father of Pakistan’s nuclear bomb, is believed to have supplied very few.

The North said its latest moves were in response to tightened international sanctions and the Security Council’s failure to penalise South Korea for its failed satellite launch last month. South Korea is not subject to sanction but the council penalised North Korea for what Pyongyang called a satellite launch in April. Earlier resolutions restricted the North from missile launches, as the rocket launch was seen by the US and Japan.

“We are prepared for both dialogue and sanctions,” said the letter. “If some permanent members of the UNSC wish to put sanctions first before dialogue, we would respond with bolstering our nuclear deterrence first before we meet them in a dialogue.”

The latest remarks, which follow a month of conciliatory gestures by the North, again raise tensions with the outside world, which has been demanding Pyongyang give up its nuclear weapons programme.

The Obama administration in the US insists that it will not diplomatically engage with the North unless Pyongyang resumes international talks that include Japan and South Korea.

Many US officials see May’s nuclear test as a sign of bad faith by the North after the Obama administration had indicated a readiness to engage.

They say they do not want to repeat the alleged mistakes of the Clinton and Bush administrations, which struck deals with Pyongyang only to see North Korea renege on the deals.

Additional reporting by Reuters

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