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Northern Korean nuclear plant is 'a provocation', says US

The US special envoy for North Korea said Pyongyang's claim of a new uranium enrichment facility is provocative and disappointing but not a crisis or a surprise. Washington, he vowed, will keep working with its regional partners in response.

Stephen Bosworth's comments after a meeting with Kim Sung-hwan, the South Korean Foreign Minister, came as the US and the North's neighbours assessed Pyongyang's revelation to a US nuclear scientist of a highly sophisticated modern enrichment operation with what the North says are 2,000 centrifuges.

"This is obviously a disappointing announcement. It is also another in a series of provocative moves," Mr Bosworth said. "That said, this is not a crisis. We are not surprised. We have been analysing the [North's] aspirations to produce enriched uranium."

Mr Kim also played down the facility, telling reporters: "It's nothing new."

The American scientist, Siegfried Hecker, reported that during a trip to the North's main Yongbyon atomic complex, he was taken to an industrial-scale uranium enrichment facility. US military officials warned it could speed up the North's ability to make and deliver viable nuclear weapons. South Korea's Defence Minister said Seoul will discuss the US moving nuclear weapons back into the country.

Robert Gates, the US Defence Secretary, said the facility could enable North Korea to build "a number" of nuclear devices beyond the handful it is presumed to have assembled.