Washington, Sept.25 : North Korea is reported to be planning to resume the reprocessing of plutonium, perhaps as soon as next week, raising concerns in Washington.
According to the New York Times, the country is on the verge of restarting a nuclear weapons program whose shutdown had earlier been portrayed by the White House as a significant diplomatic achievement.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Wednesday that the United States still hoped to preserve a hard-won agreement that called for the North to dismantle its nuclear reactor.
But North Korea has refused to resume talks, and no new ones are planned.
The International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna announced Wednesday that North Korea had barred international inspectors from a reprocessing plant at its nuclear reactor complex in Yongbyon.
The agency said that North Korea, which tested its first nuclear device in 2006 and is believed to have enough plutonium for at least six nuclear bombs, intended to resume production of nuclear weapons-grade fuel there within a week.
While reversible in theory, any resumption of nuclear work would violate the terms of the agreement, which was announced with fanfare in June and solidified, it appeared, by North Korea's public demolition of a cooling tower at Yongbyon.
North Korea's actions have at best returned negotiations to where they stood months ago, leaving little time for a resolution before the next American administration takes office in January.
Senior Bush administration officials said Wednesday that they believed that North Korea was engaging in transparent brinkmanship to extract concessions as the United States sought to cement the country's commitment to give up its nuclear weapons with a strict and intrusive verification system.
American and European officials, trying to assess the seriousness of the North Korean intentions, noted that so far, experts who have been overseeing the dismantling of North Korea's nuclear program, including some Americans, had not yet been expelled from the country.
The reprocessing plant, which turns spent nuclear fuel rods into weapons-grade plutonium, is the most secret part of the Yongbyon nuclear complex. Its reactivation would be significant, even though the main reactor has been partly dismantled under the agreement.
Moreover, allowing international inspectors to monitor activity at the plant was one of the most significant concessions the North made as part of the agreement on ending its program. If inspectors remain barred from the plant, it will become far more difficult to keep track of how much nuclear fuel the North produces.