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September 5, 2009

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North Korea claims success in enriching uranium for bombs

NORTH Korea announced yesterday that its process of enriching uranium is nearly complete, giving it a new way to make nuclear bombs as the United States and regional powers discuss how to bring the country back to disarmament talks.

The move raises concerns that North Korea may soon produce uranium-based bombs in addition to those made from plutonium.

The United States, China, Japan, Russia and South Korea have been trying for years to persuade North Korea to dismantle its plutonium-based nuclear program.

Uranium can be enriched in relatively inconspicuous, underground factories, and could provide North Korea with an easier way to build nuclear bombs, according to experts in the US and at South Korea's Institute of Nuclear Nonproliferation and Control.

Uranium-based bombs may also work without requiring test explosions like the two carried out by North Korea this May and in 2006 for plutonium-based weapons.

Washington's special envoy on North Korea, Stephen Bosworth, said any nuclear development in North Korea was a matter of concern.

"We confirm the necessity to maintain a coordinated position and the need for a complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula," he said yesterday in Beijing during a trip to discuss North Korea with counterparts in China, South Korea and Japan.

The US had long suspected that the North also had a secret uranium enrichment program, which would give it a second source of nuclear material. North Korea for years denied the claim but said in June that it was prepared to start enriching uranium.

"Experimental uranium enrichment has successfully been conducted to enter into completion phase," North Korea said in a letter to the UN Security Council yesterday.

Verifying North Korea's claim on uranium enrichment won't be easy, South Korean Defense Ministry spokesman Won Tae-jae said.

However, the announcement suggests North Korea has made progress in its uranium program in a small pilot factory, said Lee Choon-geun of South Korea's state-funded Science and Technology Policy Institute.

Still, he said it could take at least five years to build a uranium-based bomb.


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