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N. Korea move concerns U.S. allies


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(CNN) -- Washington's key allies in East Asia have expressed concern at North Korea's announcement that it is bolstering its nuclear arsenal and urged the secretive nation to return to the negotiating table.

South Korea voiced "serious concern" over a statement released by the north's Korean Central News Agency on Wednesday that quoted a foreign ministry spokesman as saying 8,000 fuel rods had been removed from its nuclear power plant in Yongbyon.

The rods must be removed before they can be processed into other products, which could include weapons-grade plutonium.

The Yongbyon plant had been shut down in 1994 as part of a deal with the United States. But it was restarted in 2002 after Pyongyang withdrew from its nuclear agreement, declaring Washington had defaulted on it. North Korea kicked out U.N. inspectors and monitors as well.

"North Korea should immediately halt actions that have a negative impact" on efforts to resume disarmament talks, South Korea's Foreign Ministry said.

"We strongly urge North Korea to return to the six-party talks without delay."

Washington has been trying to revive stalled six-nation talks -- made up of the two Koreas, Japan, China, Russia and the United Sates -- to curb Pyongyang's nuclear ambitions.

North Korea opted out of those talks in September 2004, citing a 'hostile" U.S. policy toward it. It said it would continue them only if Washington agreed to one-on-one talks.

North Korea's nuclear program is under more intense scrutiny than usual after the country announced in February that it had nuclear weapons, and then tested a conventional short-range missile, firing it into the Sea of Japan on May 1.

Nuclear experts say the extracted fuel rods that North Korea referred to on Wednesday could provide enough plutonium for three to four more bombs, once they have cooled down in two to three months time.

Japan joined the United States in saying that while they were concerned by developments, there was nothing new in the statement, which North Korea had made before to bolster its negotiating position.

"We must work to show that North Korea will benefit the most from returning quickly to the six-nation talks and disposing of its nuclear program," Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi said.

U.S. officials said the statement seemed to be a re-release of an identical statement made two years ago.

Urging a return to six-party talks, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said "North Korea's provocative comments only isolate it further from the rest of the international community."

On Tuesday, China urged restraint but rejected using sanctions to prod North Korea to return to talks, with a spokesman saying Beijing's political and trade relations with its neighbor should be kept separate.

Washington is relying on Beijing, a close ally of North Korea, to up the ante on North Korea to come back to talks.

Three rounds of talks haven't led to any breakthroughs, and it is widely thought that the poverty-stricken North Korea uses its nuclear program as a bargaining chip and to get international attention.

Earlier claims

In Wednesday's statement, the KCNA said Pyonygang was "taking necessary measures to bolster its nuclear arsenal for the defensive purpose of coping with the prevailing situation, with a main emphasis on developing the self-reliant nuclear power industry."

The North Koreans have previously claimed to have extracted the rods and reprocessed the fuel into plutonium, accounting for the five to six nuclear weapons the United States and the International Atomic Energy Agency believe the country already has.

A U.S. Defense Department official said that recent satellite images indicate the North may be preparing for a nuclear weapons test -- a prospect that IAEA chief Mohammed ElBaradei chief said could open "a Pandora's box" with "disastrous political repercussions." (Full story)

But, he told CNN's Wolf Blitzer Sunday, the agency has received no satellite information and "cannot do very much as an international institution right now on this issue other than to express concern."

The same Defense Department official said that the activity seen on the satellite imagery may be designed to mislead.

In the past two weeks, the two have traded insults with North Korean leader Kim Jong Il calling President Bush and his advisors "hooligans" and Bush labeling Kim "a tyrant."

CNN's Sohn Jie-ae contributed to this report.


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