North Korea (search) said Wednesday it has completed removing spent fuel rods from an atomic reactor, enabling it to harvest more weapons-grade plutonium. It was the communist state's latest provocation amid deadlocked talks over Pyongyang's nuclear program.
A North Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman said the country had "successfully finished" removing 8,000 fuel rods (search) from the reactor at its Yongbyon complex (search), which was shut down last month, so it can "bolster its nuclear arsenal."
North Korea kicked out international nuclear inspectors in late 2002, making it impossible to verify the claim.
While experts previously said an earlier batch of 8,000 rods could yield enough plutonium for five to eight bombs, South Korean media reported the current batch would likely yield material for only a couple of bombs because of the shorter time it was inside the reactor. To get the plutonium, the rods would need to cool and then be reprocessed, which takes months.
The announcement came a day after China rejected using sanctions to prod Pyongyang to return to six-nation talks on its nuclear ambitions, with a spokesman saying Beijing's political and trade relations with its neighbor should be kept separate.
"We stand for resolving the issue through dialogue. We are not in favor of exerting pressure or imposing sanctions," China foreign ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao said at a regular briefing. "We believe that such measures are not necessarily effective."
A Bush administration official said the United States has asked China to redouble its efforts to lure North Korea back to negotiations.
The U.S. appeal, disclosed by a State Department official Tuesday on condition of anonymity, reflects a growing frustration over North Korea's refusal to reopen six-nation talks for nearly a year and rhetoric from Pyongyang that U.S. officials consider alarming.
The talks aimed at getting Pyongyang to give up its nuclear ambitions have been stalled since June, with Pyongyang insisting it won't return until Washington drops its "hostile" policy. North Korea says the United States is planning an invasion, a claim Washington denies.
North Korea — which claims it already has at least one atomic weapon — is boosting its arsenal "for the defensive purpose of coping with the prevailing situation," the unnamed North Korean spokesman said in a statement carried by the North's official Korean Central News Agency.
The South Korean Foreign Ministry expressed "serious concern" at the development.
"North Korea should immediately halt actions that have a negative impact" on efforts to resume disarmament talks, the ministry said, according to South Korea's Yonhap news agency. "We strongly urge North Korea to return to the six-party talks without delay."
Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi noted North Korea has made such statements in the past to bolster its negotiating position.
"We must work to show that North Korea will benefit the most from returning quickly to the six-nation talks and disposing of its nuclear program," he told reporters.
The North Korean spokesman emphasized Pyongyang's desire to have a self-reliant nuclear power industry.
He noted the country already announced plans to operate its 5-megawatt reactor at Yongbyon, some 50 miles north of Pyongyang, and resume construction on a bigger reactor there because the United States pulled out of a 1994 deal on the North's nuclear program.
U.S. officials accused the North of running a secret uranium enrichment program in 2002 in violation of the earlier deal made under the Clinton administration, sparking the latest nuclear crisis. Under that deal, North Korea agreed to forgo nuclear weapons development in exchange for energy aid and the construction of nuclear reactors that couldn't be diverted for weapons use.
Worries also have grown that the North is preparing a nuclear test, with U.S. officials saying last week that spy satellites show activity in northeastern Kilju — including tunnel digging and the construction of a reviewing stand a sufficient distance away — that could indicate such a move.
On Tuesday, the North's main newspaper alleged the United States was making a "fuss" by spreading reports of alleged test preparations. However, the commentary in the state-run Rodong Sinmun daily didn't deny the North was planning a test.
Amid the tension, International Atomic Energy Agency chief Mohamed ElBaradei said last weekend that Pyongyang already had enough plutonium to make up to six bombs from an earlier batch of fuel rods at the reactor.
The nations taking part in the nuclear talks are North Korea, the United States, China, Japan, Russia and South Korea.