North Korea Plans to Restart Nuclear Reactor
(CNN) — After weeks of hurling threats at the United States and its allies, North Korea announced Tuesday it will restart a nuclear reactor it had shut more than five years ago.
The declaration demonstrates Kim Jong Un’s commitment to the country’s nuclear weapons program that the international community has tried without success to persuade it to abandon.
The North’s state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) reported that the reclusive state’s atomic energy department intends to “readjust and restart all the nuclear facilities” at its main nuclear complex, in Yongbyon.
Those facilities include a uranium enrichment facility and a reactor that was “mothballed and disabled” under an agreement reached in October 2007 during talks among North Korea, the United States and four other nations, KCNA said.
The announcement was followed by a plea for calm from United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who is himself South Korean. He said he was “deeply troubled.”
“The current crisis has already gone too far,” he said in a statement from Andorra. “Nuclear threats are not a game. Aggressive rhetoric and military posturing only result in counter-actions, and fuel fear and instability.
“Things must begin to calm down, as this situation, made worse by the lack of communication, could lead down a path that nobody should want to follow.”
Ban said dialogue and negotiations are “the only way to resolve the current crisis.”
“It’s yet another escalation in this ongoing crisis,” said Ramesh Thakur, director of the Center for Nuclear Nonproliferation and Disarmament at Australian National University in Canberra.
The tensions on the Korean Peninsula have led Pyongyang to sever a key military hotline with Seoul and declare void the 1953 armistice that stopped the Korean War.
The United States has made a show of its military strength amid annual training exercises with South Korea, flying B-2 stealth bombers capable of carrying conventional or nuclear weapons, Cold War-era B-52s and F-22 Raptor stealth fighters over South Korea.
On Monday, Seoul warned that any provocative moves from North Korea would trigger a strong response “without any political considerations.”
The motivation behind the North’s announcement Tuesday on the nuclear facilities was unclear, Thakur said, suggesting that it was unlikely to make a big difference militarily for the country, which is already believed to have four to 10 nuclear weapons.
The North Koreans may be hoping to use the move as a bargaining chip in any future talks, he said, or it could be an attempt by the country’s young leader, Kim Jong Un, to shore up support domestically.
“It’s just a very murky situation,” Thakur said. “The danger is that we can misread one another and end up with a conflict that no one wants.”
China, a key North Korean ally, expressed regret over Pyongyang’s announcement about the reactor.
“China has consistently advocated denuclearization on the peninsula and maintaining peace and stability in the region,” Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Hong Lei said Tuesday at a regular news briefing.
Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said the move would need to be dealt with in a serious manner, noting that it breached the North’s previous commitments.
A torrent of threats
The North’s latest declaration comes after a stream of verbal attacks against South Korea and the United States in recent weeks, including the threat of a nuclear strike.
Pyongyang’s angry words appear to have been fueled by recent joint military exercises by the United States and South Korea in the region, as well as tougher U.N. sanctions in response to North Korea’s latest nuclear test in February.
Much of the bellicose rhetoric, analysts say, isn’t matched by the country’s military capabilities.
Still, the U.S. Navy was moving a warship and a sea-based radar platform closer to the North Korean coast in order to monitor that country’s military moves, including possible new missile launches, a Defense Department official said Monday.
The North’s announcement Tuesday follows a new strategic line “on simultaneously pushing forward economic construction and the building of the nuclear armed force.” It was announced Sunday during a meeting of a key committee of the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea headed by Kim Jong Un.
The work of adapting and restarting the nuclear facilities “will be put into practice without delay,” KCNA said.
The measures would help solve “the acute shortage of electricity,” as well as improving the “quality and quantity” of the country’s nuclear arsenal, it said.
In June 2008, the usually secretive North Korean government made a public show of destroying the cooling tower of the Yongbyon reactor to demonstrate its compliance with a deal to disable its nuclear facilities.
But two months later, as its then-leader, Kim Jong Il, balked at U.S. demands for close inspections of its nuclear facilities, the North started to express second thoughts.
It said it was suspending the disabling of its nuclear facilities and considering steps to restore the facilities at Yongbyon “to their original state.”
In November 2009, it announced it was reprocessing nuclear fuel rods as part of measures to resume activities at Yongbyon. It noted success in turning the plutonium it had extracted into weapons-grade material.