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North Korea trying to enrich uranium - South Korea

North Korea appears to be enriching uranium, potentially giving the state that tested a plutonium-based nuclear device in May another path for making atomic weapons, South Korea's defence minister said today.

world Updated: Jun 30, 2009 13:40 IST
Jon Herskovitz

North Korea appears to be enriching uranium, potentially giving the state that tested a plutonium-based nuclear device in May another path for making atomic weapons, South Korea's defence minister said on Tuesday.

"It is clear that they are moving forward with it," Defence Minister Lee Sang-hee told a parliamentary hearing, adding such a programme is far easier to hide than the North's current plutonium-based programme.

North Korea earlier this month responded to UN punishment for its nuclear test by saying it would start enriching uranium for a light-water reactor.

Experts said destitute North Korea lacks the technology and resources to build such a costly civilian reactor but may use the programme as a cover to enrich uranium for weapons.

North Korea, which has ample supplies of natural uranium, would be able to conduct an enrichment programme in underground or undisclosed facilities and away from the prying eyes of US spy satellites.

The North's plutonium programme uses an ageing reactor and is centred at its Soviet-era Yongbyon nuclear plant, which has been watched by US aerial reconnaissance for years.

Proliferation experts said the North has purchased equipment needed for uranium enrichment including centrifuges and high-strength aluminium tubes but they doubt that Pyongyang has seriously pursued the project.

"It seems unlikely that North Korea will succeed in establishing a substantial enrichment capability ... in the near term," nuclear expert Hui Zhang wrote in an article this month in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, adding outside help from the likes of Pyongyang's ally Iran could speed up the process.

South Korean officials said the North's recent military moves that also included missile tests and threats to attack the South were likely aimed at building internal support for leader Kim Jong-il, 67, as he prepares for succession in Asia's only communist dynasty.

Investors used to the North's military rumblings said the developments have not had any major impact on trading but have raised concern among market players.

North Korea is also preparing to test a long-range missile that could hit U.S. territory and mid-range missiles that could hit all of South Korea, which could further rattle regional security, a South Korean presidential Blue House official said last week.