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25 Apr 2009 09:33
North Korea said on Saturday it has started reprocessing spent fuel rods to make weapons-grade plutonium, in an apparent response to international punishment against its controversial rocket launch.
The statement came hours after the United Nations slapped sanctions on three North Korean firms accused of backing missile development, in its first concrete action against Pyongyang over the April 5 rocket launch.
“The reprocessing of spent fuel rods from the pilot atomic power plant began as declared in the Foreign Ministry statement dated April 14,” a foreign ministry spokesperson told the official Korean Central News Agency.
“This will contribute to bolstering the nuclear deterrence for self-defence in every way to cope with the increasing military threats from the hostile forces.”
North Korea on April 14 announced it would quit six-nation nuclear disarmament talks and restart its atomic weapons programme in protest at the UN’s statement condemning the launch.
Pyongyang says it put a satellite into orbit but the United States and its allies say it conducted a disguised long-range ballistic missile test.
The North had been disabling parts of the Yongbyon nuclear complex as agreed under a February 2007 six-nation deal involving the two Koreas, the United States, China, Russia and Japan.
But six-party negotiations stalled last December because of disputes about ways to verify its declared nuclear activities.
Analysts say it will take three to four months before the North completes reprocessing about 8 000 spent fuel rods from the reactor in Yongbyon to obtain plutonium.
“It will then have produced some six to eight kilogrammes of weapons-grade plutonium, which can be used to produce one or two bombs,” said Professor Yang Moo-Jin of the University of North Korean Studies.
The North, which carried out its first nuclear test in October 2006, reportedly put the size of its plutonium stockpile at 31kg when it handed over a nuclear declaration in June 2008.
If all has been turned into weapons, the North might have six to eight bombs, experts say.
The move by the UN sanctions committee bans transactions and calls on UN member-states to freeze the assets of two defence-related companies—Korea Mining Development Trading Corporation and Korea Ryonbong General Corporation—along with the Tanchon Commercial Bank.
The committee also updated a list of items that cannot be traded with North Korea, including “some of the latest technologies relevant to ballistic missile programmes”.
South Korean Foreign Minister Yu Myung-Hwan told journalists on Wednesday sanctions would be more tightly applied to the North if it starts reprocessing the spent fuel.
Pak Tok-Hun, North Korea’s deputy permanent representative to the United Nations, denounced the new measures as a “wanton violation” of the United Nations charter.
“It is the inalienable right of every nation and country to make peaceful use of outer space,” Pak said in reference to the April 5 rocket launch.
Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, meeting with President Lee Myung-Bak in Seoul on Saturday after a visit to Pyongyang, reaffirmed Moscow’s stance against sanctions.
“North Korea is now like a fortress under siege. Other countries must not react too emotionally [to the rocket launch],” Lavrov was quoted as telling Lee by a South Korean official.
The Security Council statement had activated the sanctions committee formed under UN Resolution 1718, which was passed after the North’s missile and nuclear tests in 2006.
North Korea’s Foreign Minister Pak Ui-Chun arrived in Beijing Saturday to hold talks with Chinese officials on his way to Cuba, where he will attend an international meeting of non-aligned countries, Yonhap news agency said.
The North says it needs nuclear weapons to defend itself from US military threats.
The country, marking the anniversary of its military Saturday, announced it would deal a “merciless strike” against the US and its allies should they try to invade.
“Should the imperialist US and its followers touch even an inch of our territorial land, air or sea, our troops of the Korean People’s Army will deal a merciless strike of justice to the enemies to destroy them and thoroughly eradicate the roots of war on the Korean Peninsula,” the communist party newspaper Rodong Sinmun said.
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