South Korea's defense minister says North Korea appears to be pushing forward with a uranium enrichment program, raising fears that it may use the material to make atomic weapons.
Addressing a hearing of lawmakers Tuesday, Lee Sang-hee said it is clear that North Korea is moving forward with the program. He added that such a program is far easier to hide than the North's current plutonium-based program.
North Korea has ample supplies of natural uranium, and it could conduct an enrichment program in underground or undisclosed facilities, away from the view of U.S. spy satellites.
Earlier this month, after the United Nations placed more sanctions on North Korea for carrying out its second nuclear test in May, Pyongyang said it would start enriching uranium.
News of the alleged activities comes as the U. S. State Department's new coordinator for North Korea sanctions is traveling to China on his first foreign trip in that role.
The senior State Department official, Philip Goldberg, met with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton Monday to prepare for the trip. He says representatives of the White House National Security Council, the Treasury Department and the Defense Department will accompany him to China.
Goldberg, a former U.S. ambassador to Bolivia, was appointed last week to head an inter-agency effort to coordinate with foreign governments on the enforcement of U.N.-imposed sanctions against Pyongyang.
The U.N. Security Council imposed the sanctions June 12 in response to North Korea's May 25 nuclear test, its second since 2006.
The sanctions are aimed at cutting off funding for Pyongyang's nuclear, missile and proliferation activities.
Goldberg's mission is to persuade China, a North Korean ally and trading partner, to enforce the sanctions rigorously.
Last week, U.S. President Barack Obama extended U.S. economic sanctions against North Korea. Mr. Obama said Pyongyang's development of nuclear weapons and ability to proliferate such technology pose an extraordinary threat to the United States.
Some information for this report was provided by AFP, AP and Reuters.