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North Korea says that it has entered into the "concluding stage" of uranium enrichment, which would give the country a second means of creating material for nuclear weapons. It has previously tested weapons made from plutonium.
KCNA reported that North Korea's delegation at the United Nations had written to the UN Security Council, saying Pyongyang was now ready "for both sanctions and dialogue".
"Reprocessing of spent fuel rods is at its final phase and extracted plutonium is being weaponised," it said.
"If some permanent members of the UN Security Council wish to put sanctions first before dialogue, we would respond with bolstering our nuclear deterrence first before we meet them in a dialogue," the delegation said.
The announcement marks a significant change in tone from Pyongyang, which in recent weeks had seemed to have adopted a more conciliatory stance toward the US and South Korea, as The Christian Science Monitor reported. If true, it also denotes a serious step-up in North Korea's nuclear capabilities.
The country has already tested two plutonium-based nuclear weapons, in October 2006 and May 2009, but uranium-based weapons pose a new threat. (For more on North Korea's nuclear program, read the Monitor's recent briefing, "How big a threat is North Korea?") The BBC notes that North Korea has significant natural uranium resources, and unlike plutonium enrichment, uranium enrichment is a process that can be easily hidden.
The Korea Herald reports that North Korea made claims similar to those in the KCNA report in a letter sent Thursday to the UN Security Council, which has enacted sanctions against North Korea over its nuclear tests. Analysts say that North Korea's announcement is likely an effort to enter into direct talks with the US, outside of the six-party talks, which also include China, South Korea, Japan, and Russia. US special envoy to North Korea Stephen Bosworth is currently visiting Asia to meet with members of the various six parties.
"The letter serves a multi-layered purpose, but the main goal is of course to push the United States into talks," said Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies. "Pyongyang probably wants Stephen Bosworth to visit to pursue this agenda."
Ultimately, Yang said the North was signaling that the sooner Washington agrees to talks, the speedier a denuclearization.
"The underlying threat is that the longer it takes for Washington, the bigger its nuclear deterrence will become," the professor said.
But Kyodo News reports that Mr. Bosworth said that while North Korea's announcement is "of concern," the US would not open bilateral talks with Pyongyang, and would engage the North "only within the context of the six-party process."
If the US ignores Pyongyang's message, North Korea will likely follow it with more overt acts, writes Yonhap News.
"This is a time-honored North Korean pattern, asking 'Are you going to let us do the enrichment or settle this through negotiation,'" [Koh Yu-hwan, a North Korea studies professor at Dongguk University,] said.
"But when the verbal warning brings nothing, the North usually goes into action. Now is the verbal stage, and North Korea will see how the related countries respond."
In an analysis, however, Reuters suggests that because Pyongyang's moves are unlikely to change the status of the six-party talks, its efforts to engage the US may actually be largely for the benefit of China.
The North's conciliatory tone may sit well with neighbor China, the closest Pyongyang can claim as a major ally, and more importantly, the country that has the greatest influence on how effectively U.N. sanctions are enforced.
It particular, it wants to ease the impact of sanctions on one of cash-starved North Korea's important sources of foreign currency with estimates saying they are worth about 6 percent of its yearly GDP.