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The U.S. government believes North Korea will be capable of producing a nuclear bomb using enriched uranium as early as in 2004, Japanese and U.S. sources have told Kyodo News.

The U.S. government made the projection based on the number of centrifugal separators North Korea has imported from Pakistan, the sources said Tuesday. The machines are used to enrich uranium, a process necessary for building bombs.

Sources close to U.S. intelligence said at least 2,000 separators have been shipped to North Korea, countering previous speculation that about 1,000 such machines had been shipped.

Although the U.S. government has not yet confirmed that they are operating, it believes North Korea may be able to complete work on an atomic bomb in 2004 if it begins production immediately, given the size of a plant housing the separators, the sources said.

The U.S. analysis is likely to increase international pressure on Pyongyang to halt its nuclear weapons development program.

North Korea admitted to U.S. officials in October that it has maintained a secret program to extract uranium for nuclear weapons.

The Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization, an international consortium set up to implement a 1994 U.S.-North Korea deal under which Pyongyang agreed to abandon its nuclear program in return for energy aid, decided last Thursday to halt fuel oil supplies from December and review the construction of two reactors for North Korea unless Pyongyang abandons its nuclear weapons development program.

Subsequently, however, Pyongyang has said it will not give up its nuclear development program.

It has also demanding a nonaggression pact with the United States.

According to the Japanese and U.S. sources, North Korea had started development of atomic bombs using enriched uranium technology by 1997 at the latest.

Pyongyang began importing centrifugal machines to extract enriched uranium from Pakistan in 1998. An informed sources said the number of centrifugal machines shipped to North Korea was between 2,000 and 5,000.

An atomic bomb using enriched uranium is the same type as that dropped on Hiroshima on Aug. 6, 1945.

The U.S. government passed this information to the Japanese government at a meeting between Vice Foreign Minister Yukio Takeuchi and U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage in August.

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