N Korea presses ahead with uranium enrichment
Seoul/Beijing: North Korea said Tuesday it was accelerating its nuclear programme, a target of global criticism.
The isolated Communist nation's state media released first details of a recently disclosed uranium enrichment facility at its nuclear centre in Yongbyon, 100 km north of Pyongyang, saying "thousands of centrifuges" were already operating there to produce fuel for planned light-water reactors.
The US fears that North Korea aims to use the enriched uranium for nuclear weapons.
Political observers say Pyongyang may be putting on a show of strength in the wake of escalated tensions on the Korean peninsula. The report claiming progress in the nuclear programme came just a week after North Korea's artillery attack on an inhabited South Korean island in the Yellow Sea.
Meanwhile, US and South Korean military forces continued large-scale war games in the Yellow Sea. North Korea reiterated its warning, via state media, that the naval exercises could lead to war. The exercises, expressly meant to send a message against North Korean aggression, are due to end Wednesday.
According to a report by Rodong Sinmun, the newspaper of North Korea's ruling Workers Party, construction of a new nuclear reactor is currently under way. The reactor and uranium enrichment facility are meant for energy production, it said.
"To resolve energy needs, the nuclear-energy-development project for peaceful purposes will be pushed harder," the paper reported.
The existence of the new uranium facility was made public earlier in November by US nuclear scientist Siegfried Hecker following a visit to North Korea. Hecker said North Korea also intended only to build a small pilot reactor at first.
Both the US and South Korea have expressed serious concern about the uranium facility. Depending on the degree of enrichment, uranium can be used either for civilian or military purposes.
On the diplomatic front, China continued to seek support for its mediation efforts at easing tensions in the region. The efforts were welcomed by Germany's foreign minister, Guido Westerwelle.
In a telephone conversation with his Chinese counterpart, Yang Jiechi, Westerwelle urged China to keep using its influence on North Korea to avoid a further escalation, according to the German Foreign Ministry.
The Nov 23 artillery bombardment of the island of Yongpyong by North Korea killed four South Koreans. On Monday, South Korean President Lee Myung Bak accused the regime in Pyongyang of inhumane conduct and warned sharply against more provocations.
China's proposal for a multilateral meeting of itself, the two Koreas, the US, Japan and Russia is seen as the "starting point" for a reduction of tensions on the Korean peninsula, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said in Beijing, adding that China hoped for a positive response.
Under the proposal, the respective negotiators in the so-called Six-Party Talks on North Korea's nuclear programme would gather in Beijing. South Korea, the US and Japan have either rejected the proposal outright or reacted sceptically to the invitation.
The Chinese government will hold initial talks with the chairman of North Korea's Supreme People's Assembly, Choe Tae Bok. A close confidant of North Korean leader Kim Jong-il, Choe arrived in China Tuesday for a visit.
In another development, classified US diplomatic cables published by the whistleblower website WikiLeaks suggest that constant North Korean provocations have angered China. The cables also show that Washington is largely in the dark about what is going on in North Korea.