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North Korea Says Has Started Extracting Plutonium

North Korea has announced it has started to extract plutonium from spent fuel rods at its nuclear plant, hours after the UN Security Council imposed sanctions on three North Korean companies.

The move is the latest fallout from North Korea's April 5 rocket launch, widely seen as a disguised long-range missile test that violated UN resolutions.

Speaking during a visit to Iraq, U.S. Secretary of State responded to the news by saying Washington hoped talks would resume and that it would continue to press Pyongyang to return to its obligations.

North Korea earlier this month vowed to restart the Yongbyon nuclear plant.

The brief Foreign Ministry statement on state TV said that "the reprocessing of spent fuel rods from the pilot atomic power plant began as declared in the Foreign Ministry statement dated April 14."

The news anchorwoman added that the move would "contribute to bolstering the nuclear deterrence for self-defense in every way to cope with the increasing military threats from the hostile forces."

It is the latest in a tit-for-tat exchange between North Korea and the major powers involved in nuclear disarmament talks.

Pyongyang had previously been disabling the plant in line with an international disarmament deal.

But those talks stalled back in December.

On April 5, North Korea launched a long-range rocket it said put a satellite into space, but which the United States and its allies said was a disguised missile test.

UN Security Council condemnation quickly followed.

Pyongyang retaliated, saying it would pull out of the disarmament talks and bolster its nuclear deterrent. It expelled UN and U.S. inspectors.

Then on April 24, the UN's sanctions committee placed three North Korean companies on a blacklist for aiding Pyongyang's missile and nuclear programs.

The move will require countries that have dealings with the companies to freeze their assets.

Japanese Ambassador Yukio Takasu said it was important to implement the decision effectively, adding that "this unity of the council could send, I hope, a good signal to the rest of the world."

Experts estimate North Korea already has enough weapons-grade plutonium for six to eight nuclear bombs.

Reprocessing the thousands of spent fuel rods at Yongbyon could yield it enough material for at least one more bomb.

It could take as little as three months to have the reprocessing facility fully operational.

Something that can only lend more urgency to efforts to bring North Korea back to the negotiating table.

compiled from news agency reports