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North Korea Uranium Enrichment Work Progressing, Country Claims

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In this undated photo released by the Korea News Service in Tokyo Wednesday, Dec. 15, 2004, North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, center, inspects the construction site of a power plant in North Korea. (AP Photo/Korea News Service) | AP FILE

SEOUL, South Korea — North Korea claimed Wednesday that it is making rapid progress on work to enrich uranium and build a light-water nuclear power plant. The news increases worries that the communist country is developing another way to make atomic weapons.

Pyongyang's Foreign Ministry said in a statement that the construction of an experimental light-water reactor and low enriched uranium are "progressing apace." The statement was carried by the official Korean Central News Agency.

Concerns about North Korea's atomic capability took on renewed urgency in November 2010 when a visiting American scientist was shown a uranium enrichment facility. Ostensibly for civilian electricity, a nuclear power plant allows North Korea to enrich uranium, which at low levels can be used in power reactors but can also be used in nuclear bombs in addition to the country's existing plutonium-based atomic weapons program.

Earlier this month, North Korean state media said "the day is near at hand" when the reactor will come into operation. Washington says it is concerned about reported progress on the reactor construction, saying that would violate U.N. Security Council resolutions.

Five countries, including the United States, had been negotiating with North Korea to provide the nation with much-needed aid in exchange for disarmament. North Korea pulled out of the disarmament talks in 2009 to protest international condemnation of its prohibited long-range rocket test.

In recent months, North Korea has repeatedly expressed its willingness to rejoin the talks. South Korea and U.S. officials, however, have demanded the North first halt its uranium-enrichment program, freeze nuclear and missile tests and allow international nuclear inspectors back into the country.

The North Korean statement Wednesday accused the U.S. and its allies of "groundlessly" taking issue with the North's peaceful nuclear activities. They are "deliberately laying a stumbling block in the way of settling the nuclear issue on the Korean peninsula through dialogue and negotiations," the statement said.