North Korea Says It Has Entered 'Final Stage' of Uranium Enrichment

North Korea said Friday that it is in the final stages of enriching uranium, a process that could give it a second way to make nuclear bombs. Video by AP
By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, September 4, 2009; 9:09 AM

SEOUL, Sept. 4 -- North Korea announced early Friday that it is in the "final stage" of enriching uranium, a process that, if completed, would give it a second means of making a nuclear bomb.

In rejection of U.N. efforts to sanction its nuclear weapons program, the North's official Korean Central News Agency declared, "We've successfully done the experiment for enrichment of uranium and it has entered the final stage."

North Korea has twice tested nuclear devices that use plutonium, which is manufactured by a chemical process in a nuclear reactor. The last test, in late May, triggered international outrage and tough new U.N. sanctions.

As part of those sanctions, a North Korean arms shipment was seized last month off the United Arab Emirates. North Korea said Friday that it "will neither accept nor be binded" by the sanctions.

Enriched uranium offers a different way to make bombs. It uses centrifuges to spin hot uranium gas into weapons-grade fuel. North Korea announced in June -- after nearly seven years of denial -- that it had a program for making nuclear weapons from enriched uranium.

Outside experts have said that it would probably take the North several years to develop the uranium route to a bomb because the country lacks centrifuge materials, technology and know-how.

Iran, however, has mastered much of this technology and could help North Korea move forward, according to Siegfried S. Hecker, a periodic visitor to North Korea's plutonium complex at Yongbyon who was director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory.

North Korea and Iran have shared long-range missile technology that could enable both countries to deliver a nuclear warhead.

In its announcement Friday, the North also said that spent fuel rods from Yongbyon are being reprocessed and turned into weapons-grade plutonium. The reactor was partially disabled last year as part of a denuclearization deal with the United States and four other countries that the North subsequently canceled.

The United States and South Korea reacted negatively, with Washington's special envoy on North Korea saying 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 cooperation and dialogue and complete denuclearization" of the Korean peninsula, Stephen Bosworth told reporters in Beijing during an Asia trip to discuss how to bring North Korea back to disarmament talks.

In Seoul, the South Korean foreign ministry said the North's behavior is "not tolerable."

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