North Korea 'enriching weapons-grade uranium at a number of sites'
North Korea has been enriching potentially weapons-grade uranium at up to four sites outside its main nuclear complex, South Korean intelligence has claimed.
The report of the secret additional enrichment facilities outside its Yongbon complex, first published by a South Korean newspaper, was confirmed by Seoul's foreign minister Kim Sung-hwan on Tuesday.
"It is a report based on what is still intelligence and let me just say that we have been following this issue for some time," Mr Kim said.
Earlier this month a US nuclear scientist, Seigfried Hecker, said he was "stunned" by the sophistication of North Korea's uranium enrichment facilities at Yongbon where he saw hundreds of centrifuges linked to each other.
Mr Hecker later said the plant was most likely for civilian use, but warned in an article in Foreign Affairs magazine that it was "highly likely that a parallel covert facility capable of HEU [highly enriched uranium] production exists elsewhere in the country." North Korea has already tested two plutonium-based nuclear devices, but US defence analysts fear that Pyongyang is racing to build a uranium-based bomb that would further buttress its international negotiating position.
Pyongyang has claimed that its new programme is peaceful, with an article in the ruling communist party's Rodong Sinmun newspaper saying the country was developing nuclear energy like other countries, adding: "Peaceful nuclear activity is a sovereign right of all nations."
Tensions on the Korean peninsula remain high following last month's bombardment of a South Korean island by North Korea that killed two marines and two civilians.
South Korea's armed forces, which were criticised for their slow response to the shelling, suffered further embarrassment on Tuesday when the army chief, General Hwang Eui-Don, resigned over a property scandal.
As diplomatic divisions over how to best handle North Korea continued, Russia this week joined China in calling for a return to the stalled Six Party nuclear disarmament.
Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, expressed his "deep concern" about the industrial uranium enrichment capability when the North's foreign minister Pak Ui-Chun visited Moscow on Monday, urging Pyongyang to comply with UN resolutions on the issue.
China, which has faced calls from the US, South Korea and Japan to use its influence on Pyongyang, said on Tuesday that last week's meeting between its senior foreign affairs official Dai Bingguo and the North Korean leader Kim Jong-il had been fruitful.
"Both sides believe the six-party talks process should go forward, and strive to achieve denuclearisation of the (Korean) peninsula," a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman said of Dai's visit.
However Washington, Tokyo and Seoul have refused all call to return to the negotiating table, warning against rewarding North Korean belligerence and calling on Pyongyang to demonstrate that it is serious about creating a nuclear-free Korea.
The diplomatic negotiations between the US and China will continue, with James Steinberg, the US Deputy Secretary of State due to visit Beijing this week to press for tougher action.
Meanwhile Bill Richardson, the governor of New Mexico and a longtime intermediary with Pyongyang, will visit North Korea on Thursday, on what is billed as a four-day private trip, which is expected to calm tensions.