SEOUL, South Korea – North Korea has restarted its nuclear facilities to harvest weapons-grade plutonium, an official said Saturday, just hours after the U.N. imposed new sanctions on the communist state for its recent rocket launch.
The move is a key step away from a 2007 disarmament deal — signed after a 2006 nuclear test — that called for North Korea to disable its nuclear facilities in exchange for much-needed energy aid and other concessions.
"The reprocessing of spent fuel rods from the pilot atomic power plant has begun," the North Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman said in comments carried by the official Korean Central News Agency.
Harvesting weapons-grade plutonium "will contribute to bolstering the nuclear deterrence for self-defense in every way to cope with the increasing military threats from the hostile forces," he said.
With North Korea believed to have enough weaponized plutonium to build half a dozen or more bombs, neighboring powers and the U.S. have been trying for years to stem the country's nuclear ambitions.
The 2006 underground nuclear test — months after a long-range missile test — alarmed the world and prompted U.N. Security Council resolutions and sanctions against North Korea barring it from ballistic missile-related activity.
In February 2007, impoverished North Korea agreed to a six-nation disarmament-for-aid deal that required it to dismantle its atomic program in exchange for aid. Disablement began in November 2007, with North Korea completing eight of 11 required steps and blowing up a cooling tower at its main Yongbyon complex in June 2008 in a dramatic show of its commitment to the process.
But the disablement came to an abrupt halt just weeks later because of a dispute with Washington over how to verify North Korea's 18,000-page list of past nuclear activities. The latest round of talks, in December, failed to end the deadlock.
With talks at a standstill, North Korea announced earlier this year it would launch a satellite into space using a multistage rocket — a move the U.S., Japan and other nations warned would violate the 2006 U.N. resolution barring missile activity since the delivery technology can easily be used to send a missile with a warhead.
Defying the warnings, North Korea went ahead with the rocket launch on April 5, bringing Security Council condemnation.
In response, North Korea expelled international nuclear monitors, vowed to restart its atomic program and quit the six-nation disarmament negotiations.
The new sanctions approved Friday require nations that have dealings with three North Korean companies to freeze their assets. The committee actions are final and do not require additional approval.
The companies are the Korea Mining Development Trading Corp. and Korea Ryongbong General Corp., both of which were previously sanctioned for suspected involvement in ballistic missile transactions, and Tanchon Commercial Bank, which managed the transaction funds.
The deputy chief of North Korea's diplomatic mission to the U.N., Pak Tok Hun, reacted angrily to the sanctions, saying the North will not accept any Security Council decision, according to South Korea's Yonhap news agency.
"The peaceful use of space is a right that cannot be deprived of any country," Yonhap quoted Pak as saying. "The recent activity of the U.N. Security Council shows we cannot expect anything from it unless it is democratized."
South Korea's Foreign Ministry said it would come up with measures to implement the U.N. decision but had no immediate comment on the North's announcement about reprocessing spent fuel rods.
South Korean President Lee Myung-bak asked Russia on Saturday to play a role in reviving the stalled disarmament talks, his office said.
Moscow will continue to try to draw North Korea back to the talks, visiting Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov told Lee during talks Saturday. He said North Korea rejected a recent Russian offer to help with the satellite launch, Lee's office said.
Lavrov flew to Seoul on Friday after failing during a two-day trip to Pyongyang to persuade North Korean officials to end their boycott of the nuclear negotiations.
Meanwhile, North Korean Foreign Minister Pak Ui Chun traveled to Beijing early Saturday but it was not immediately clear why, Japan's Kyodo News agency said.
On Friday, Lavrov renewed his country's opposition to sanctions against North Korea. "Sanctions are not constructive," he said at a joint news conference with his South Korean counterpart.
Lavrov called on the countries involved in the disarmament talks to create the conditions necessary for a resumption of the discussions. The six nations — China, Japan, the two Koreas, the U.S. and Russia — should "honor their obligations," he said.