WASHINGTON -- The United States on Sunday urged North Korea to replace surveillance gear it dismantled at one of its nuclear reactors and refrain from restarting the facility, expressing alarm that Pyongyang is stepping up efforts to build an atomic bomb.
As Secretary of State Colin Powell discussed the situation over the weekend with top officials of China, South Korea, Russia and Japan, the International Atomic Energy Agency charged that North Korea had broken seals at a spent fuel facility near the same reactor, a pond containing some 8,000 irradiated fuel rods.
The move "raises further serious concerns and belies North Korea's announced justification to produce electricity," State Department spokesman Lou Fintor said. "The 8,000-odd spent fuel rods are of particular concern because they could be reprocessed to recover plutonium for nuclear weapons. They have no relevance for the generation of electricity."
A leading Democratic senator said the United States faced more of a threat from North Korea than from Iraq's weapons programs.
"This is a greater danger immediately to U.S. interests at this very moment, in my view, than Saddam Hussein is," said Sen. Joe Biden, outgoing chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
"If they lift the seals on these canisters (at the plant), they're going to be able to build four to five additional nuclear weapons within months if they begin that reprocessing operation -- that's within a year," Biden, D-Del., told "Fox News Sunday."
North Korea on Saturday disabled the U.N. equipment installed at a reactor in Yongbyon, according to the IAEA.
Fintor urged North Korea to respond to repeated requests by the U.N. nuclear agency "to consult on arrangements for safeguarding" the facilities at Yongbyon and allow the agency to replace or restore the seals and cameras.
"A move to restart them would fly in the face of the international consensus that the North Korean regime must fulfill all its commitments and in particular dismantle its covert nuclear weapons program," Fintor said.
North Korea acknowledged on Oct. 4 that it had a uranium-enrichment program meant to develop a nuclear weapon.
President Bush later halted oil shipments the United States has provided the energy-poor country. In response, the North Koreans said they would restart nuclear energy facilities shut down as part of a 1994 disarmament pact.
North Korea's official news agency said Sunday the government began removing the equipment because the nuclear agency was "whiling away time after proposing what it called working negotiations."
Under the 1994 agreement, North Korea pledged to freeze and eventually dismantle its nuclear weapons program in exchange for international aid to build two power-producing nuclear reactors.
The United States "will not enter into dialogue in response to threats or broken commitments, and we will not bargain or offer inducements for North Korea to live up to the treaties and agreements it has signed," Fintor said.
Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind. and incoming chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the administration must be firm in dealing with North Korea.
"We cannot take an attitude, I believe, in which we just simply say they are wrong -- that is, the North Koreans -- we're not going to talk until they do some things right," he said. "We're all going to have to talk, talk continuously to South Korea, to North Korea, to Japan, be heavily engaged."
The United States has threatened war if Iraq does not disarm, but has taken a much more measured approach with North Korea, which Bush has said is part of an "axis of evil" with Iraq and Iran.
Powell called Chinese Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan, South Korean Foreign Minister Choi Sung-hong and Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov on Saturday. On Sunday, he spoke with Japanese Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi.