North Korea has boasted of running “thousands” of nuclear centrifuges, a week after launching a deadly artillery attack on South Korea, as China pressed for six-nation crisis talks.
State media in the North, which has already tested two atomic bombs made from plutonium, said on Tuesday “many thousands of centrifuges” are operating to enrich uranium at a new plant which it claims is for peaceful energy purposes.
The country first disclosed the new plant to US experts less than two weeks before its artillery assault, which killed two civilians and two marines on South Korea’s Yeonpyeong island near the disputed Yellow Sea border.
Experts and senior US officials fear the plant could easily be configured to make weapons-grade uranium.
Analysts say the nuclear revelation and artillery attack appeared co-ordinated to pressure Washington and Seoul into resuming dialogue and aid, and possibly to bolster the credentials of leader-in-waiting Kim Jong-Un.
For a third day, the US and South Korean navies staged war games far south of the border involving 11 ships, air power and 7,300 personnel.
South Korea is separately strengthening artillery and troop numbers on frontline islands near the tense frontier. It will hold more drills next week close to the border, though not near Yeonpyeong, the Yonhap news agency said.
The North’s state media blasted the naval drill, calling it provocative and warmongering.
“We have full deterrence to destroy our enemies at once,” said cabinet newspaper Minju Chosun. “If the US and South Korean enemies dare to fire one shell in our territory and sea territory, they will have to pay for it.”
Citing a statement from the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Yonhap said that more live fire exercises would take place from December 6 to 12 including near Daechong island close to the frontier.
Pressure on China
China has refused publicly to condemn its ally for the shelling, instead suggesting emergency consultations between envoys to the stalled six-nation talks on the North’s nuclear disarmament.
Foreign ministry spokesman Hong Lei said on Tuesday it was imperative “to bring the issue back to the track of dialogue and consultation” as soon as possible.
The White House, which had already dismissed such talks as a “PR activity” unless Pyongyang moderates its activities, said that China had an “obligation” to press North Korea to end its “belligerent behaviour”.
“The Chinese have a duty and obligation” to impress “on the North Koreans that their belligerent behaviour has to come to an end”, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs told reporters.
Japan’s foreign minister has also faulted China’s proposal.
South Korean President Lee Myung-Bak, in a toughly worded speech on Monday, did not mention China’s suggestion in what some saw as an implicit rejection.
“We should recognise that (South Korea) is confronting the world’s most belligerent group,” he told a cabinet meeting on Tuesday.
Almost 100 South Korean marine veterans landed on Yeonpyeong island on Tuesday, vowing to defend it, ferret out spies — and feed abandoned dogs.
“Execute Kim Jong-Il, Jong-Un,” read a banner they erected after arriving by ferry, in reference to the North’s leader and heir apparent.
Elsewhere, activists sent balloons with anti-Pyongyang leaflets, DVDs and one-dollar bills floating into the North across the heavily fortified frontier, urging people to rise up against the hardline regime.
With the nuclear disclosure and the bombardment, the North’s leaders “demonstrated their ability to create trouble more or less with impunity”, North Korea expert Andrei Lankov wrote in a commentary.
Diplomatic efforts were continuing, however.
Seoul’s foreign ministry said its minister Kim Sung-Hwan would attend a Kazakhstan summit of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe on Wednesday and Thursday where he was expected to meet US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov.
And two top North Korean officials arrived in Beijing on Tuesday, South Korean and Japanese media said.