North Korea said Wednesday that it had reactivated its nuclear facilities and is going ahead with their operation "on a normal footing."
The communist country will use the facilities to generate electricity "at the present stage," an unidentified North Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman said. His remarks were carried by the official KCNA news agency.
"The DPRK is now putting the operation of its nuclear facilities for the production of electricity on a normal footing after their restart," the spokesman said. DPRK stands for Democratic People's Republic of Korea, which is North Korea's official name.
In Washington, the State Department said that if the announcement was true, "this would be a very serious development." It demanded the North "reverse this action ... North Korea must visibly, verifiably and irreversibly dismantle its nuclear weapons program."
"The DPRK government has already solemnly declared that its nuclear activity would be limited to the peaceful purposes including the production of electricity at the present stage," the spokesman said.
However, U.S. officials and nuclear experts say the amount of electricity that North Korea can produce at its nuclear facilities is negligible. The facilities at Yongbyon, north of Pyongyang, were the center of a suspected nuclear weapons program in the 1990s.
Earlier, reports CBS News Correspondent Mark Knoller, spokesman Ari Fleischer said North Korea is "marching itself backward in time to greater isolation."
"North Korea has a history of doing things like they did in the 90s, outside of the context of Iraq," he said.
Fleischer called it a setback for the people of North Korea.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld called North Korea "a terrorist regime" and said the restarting of the nuclear program would give the nation a disturbing choice.
"They could either make additional nuclear weapons for themselves or they can sell the nuclear materials and-or the nuclear material inside a warhead to another country — any country," Rumsfeld said. "And that is something the world has to take very seriously."
The North Korean spokesman criticized U.S. efforts to bring the nuclear dispute to the U.N. Security Council, saying the matter is between the North and the United States only.
"If the U.N. Security Council responsible for the issue of world peace and security does not call the U.S. wrong Korean policy to task, this organization will turn out to be partial and the DPRK will, accordingly, not recognize it," the spokesman said.
The North's announcement came hours after South Korea took a new step in its policy of trying to ease tensions by pursuing reconciliation with the isolated communist regime. Earlier Wednesday, the South opened a road across the heavily fortified border for the first time in more than half a century.
Pyongyang wants direct talks with Washington. Analysts say North Korea, which often accuses the United States of plotting to invade it, fears Washington will turn up pressure on it if a war against Iraq is successful.
The North may hope that heightening the standoff at a time when Washington is trying to concentrate on Iraq could prompt the United States to make concessions.
The Pentagon is considering bolstering U.S. forces in the region to deter the North from any provocations during an Iraq war. Washington says it has no plans to invade North Korea.
The United States is pressing for the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency to refer the issue to the Security Council — which would likely impose punitive sanctions on the North. Pyongyang vehemently opposes such a move.
Meanwhile, South Korea opened a road across its heavily militarized border with North Korea on Wednesday, the first such connection between the countries in more than five decades.
The South also said it wanted to take further steps toward reconciliation despite the communist state's defiance over its nuclear program.
While hoping for a peaceful solution to the standoff over the North's nuclear ambitions, U.S. ally South Korea fears that the tension might escalate into an armed conflict on the volatile peninsula.
Last week, U.S. officials said spy satellites have detected covered trucks apparently taking on cargo at the storage facility where spent nuclear fuel rods are stored. If the rods are processed, enough plutonium can be extracted to make several nuclear weapons, U.S. officials have said.
In parliament, South Korea's No. 2 leader said that while Seoul would not tolerate the North's alleged atomic weapons program, it wanted to move ahead with reconciliation efforts.
"We can never tolerate North Korea's nuclear weapons development, which is a threat to our national security and world peace, but tension should not be allowed to keep rising on the Korean Peninsula," Prime Minister Kim Suk-soo said in a speech to the National Assembly.