SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — North Korea appears to have started a uranium enrichment program soon after it agreed in a 1994 deal with the U.S. to dismantle its existing plutonium nuclear weapons program, South Korea’s foreign minister said Wednesday.
Foreign Minister Yu Myung-hwan’s remark, if accurate, suggests North Korea had no intention of giving up its atomic ambitions when it signed the 1994 pact that defused an earlier crisis over its plutonium-based bomb program.
Suspicions about a North Korean uranium program touched off a new nuclear standoff in 2002, when a U.S. official said the North privately admitted having such a secret program.
North Korea has long rejected the uranium allegations. But in an attempt to further escalate tensions after its second-ever nuclear test last May, it acknowledged having such a program and said it had succeeded in experimental uranium enrichment. It has not said when the program began.
“It appears the North started the uranium enrichment program right after the 1994 agreement or at least in 1996,” Yu said in an interview with the Yonhap news agency published Wednesday. He did not give specific evidence. His ministry confirmed his remarks.
If North Korea did launch the uranium program so soon after the 1994 deal with the U.S., it would suggest that the program may be more advanced than expected because it was not previously thought to have started so early, Yonhap said.
Yu said, however, that it is unclear how advanced the program is, how much uranium the North has enriched or how much of it has been turned into weapons.
Atomic bombs can be made with highly enriched uranium or plutonium.
Under the 1994 pact with the U.S., North Korea agreed to freeze and ultimately dismantle its nuclear reactor in exchange for economic aid and diplomatic recognition.
The accord fell apart in 2002 when the U.S. accused the North of running a secret uranium enrichment program.
In addition to the uranium program, North Korea is also believed to have enough plutonium for at least half a dozen bombs.
Since 2003, the U.S., China, Japan, South Korea and Russia have engaged North Korea in six-party talks aimed at ending its nuclear programs, but they have been deadlocked for more than a year.
Last month, President Barack Obama’s special envoy visited Pyongyang and the two sides agreed on the need to resume the stalled six-nation talks. But the North did not make a firm commitment on when it would rejoin the negotiations, saying there are still unspecified differences to be resolved.
At the United Nations, China’s ambassador, Zhang Yesui, urged the United States and North Korea on Tuesday to “seize the moment and take positive steps” so that the six-party talks can resume quickly.
The ambassador, who took over the rotating presidency of the Security Council this month, called the recent talks between the senior U.S. and North Korean officials a “positive development.”
Associated Press writer Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations contributed to this report.