A photo released by North Korea's official news agency shows the hardline communist country's leader Kim Jong-Il (right) inspecting an army command. North Korea has said it has reached the final stages of enriching uranium, a process that would give it a second way to make nuclear bombs, in a defiant response to tougher United Nations sanctions. (AFP)

A photo released by North Korea's official news agency shows the hardline communist country's leader Kim Jong-Il (right) inspecting an army command. North Korea has said it has reached the final stages of enriching uranium, a process that would give it a second way to make nuclear bombs, in a defiant response to tougher United Nations sanctions. (AFP)

North Korea said Friday it had reached the final stages of enriching uranium, a process that would give it a second way to make nuclear bombs, in a defiant response to tougher United Nations sanctions.

The hardline communist state also announced it was building more plutonium-based atomic bombs.

“Experimental uranium enrichment has successfully been conducted to enter into completion phase,” the official Korean Central News Agency quoted its permanent representative to the United Nations as saying.

“Reprocessing of spent fuel rods is at its final phase and extracted plutonium is being weaponised,” the representative was quoted as saying in a letter Thursday to the UN Security Council president.

The North also said it is prepared “for both dialogue and sanctions,” apparently echoing a more conciliatory tone it has struck in recent weeks.

Pyongyang for years denied it was operating a secret enriched uranium bomb-making programme, in addition to its admitted plutonium-based operation which fuelled two nuclear tests.

But on June 13, a day after the UN punished its latest test with tougher sanctions, the North vowed to start an enriched uranium programme and to extract plutonium from spent fuel rods at its Yongbyon reactor.

South Korea denounced the reported actions as “intolerable.”

“The government will deal sternly and consistently with North Korea’s threats and provocations,” the foreign ministry said in a statement.

South Korea’s then-defence minister said in late June the North did indeed seem to be pushing forward with a uranium enrichment programme, which was easier to hide than a plutonium reprocessing operation.

Kim Yeon-Chul of Seoul’s Hankyoreh Peace Research Institute said it was difficult to assess how far uranium enrichment technology had progressed, although it was not surprising fuel rods were being processed.

“Keeping open windows both for dialogue and a further nuclear build-up, North Korea is warning the US that its nuclear activities will only move forward unless negotiations get under way,” Kim told AFP.

The North’s UN representative said he was responding to a letter from the world body’s sanctions committee “requesting a clarification.”

The United Arab Emirates has informed the sanctions committee it has seized a ship carrying North Korean weapons to Iran, according to UN diplomats.

The North said it would never be bound by Resolution 1874 passed June 12, which authorised members to search ships suspected of carrying banned weapons.

It said that if some Security Council members continue to put sanctions before dialogue, it would be forced “to take yet stronger self-defensive countermeasures.”

Pyongyang had shut down Yongbyon under a six-nation nuclear disarmament deal. But it quit the talks after the UN censured its April 5 rocket launch, and vowed to restart its bomb-making programme.

It staged its second nuclear test on May 25.

As the United States presses for tough enforcement of Resolution 1874, the North has made a series of peace overtures.

In August it freed two US journalists and five South Koreans, eased border crossings with the South, sent representatives to talks in Seoul and expressed willingness for direct discussions with Washington on the nuclear standoff.

The North said it had never objected to denuclearising the Korean peninsula but the six-way talks had been used to “violate outrageously” its sovereignty.

Denuclearisation of the peninsula “is closely related with the US nuclear policy toward the DPRK (North Korea),” it added.

The United States says bilateral talks must be held in the six-party context. Its envoy on North Korea Stephen Bosworth is visiting the region for talks aimed at restarting the six-party process.

South Korea’s nuclear envoy Wi Sung-Lac, quoted by Yonhap news agency, said the latest statement is “not helpful” and he would discuss it with Bosworth, who arrives Friday afternoon from Beijing.

The North blamed its second nuclear test on the UN’s “high-handed” criticism of its rocket launch. It says this put a peaceful satellite into space, while the United States and others saw a disguised long-range missile test.

The North complained that the UN had failed to censure South Korea’s rocket launch last month. AFP