Is North Korea on a 'collision' course with vow to restart nuclear reactor?

Kim Jong-un announced that North Korea will restart its nuclear facility, making the country's nuclear program a source of deep concern for the international community.

In this June 2008 image taken from television, the 60-foot-tall cooling tower is seen before its demolition at the main Nyongbyon reactor complex in Nyongbyon, also known as Yongbyon, North Korea. North Korea vowed Tuesday, to restart a nuclear reactor that can make one bomb's worth of plutonium a year, escalating tensions already raised by near daily warlike threats against the United States and South Korea.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un continued what has become a daily effort to raise tensions and fears abroad, and to consolidate patriotic ardor and unity at home, by saying he plans to restart an old nuclear reactor that can produce plutonium used in the creation of nuclear weapons.

In response, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, the former foreign minister of South Korea, today described the North as on “a collision course with the international community” – even as some Korea watchers call it all bluster and bellicosity.

Experts say it could take as little as three months to a year for scientists to restart the Yongbyon nuclear facility. The facility was closed most recently in 2012 with the promise of food aid from the US – though that so-called "food for nukes" deal fell through with the North's third nuclear test in February.  

It is quite unclear whether young leader Kim Jung-un – whose recent bone-jarring threats of war and attack are considered part of his consolidation of power inside Pyongyang and among the North Korean people – will go ahead with an expensive project of plutonium reprocessing and enriching uranium, or use these to extract aid and talks.

A nuclear weapon or capability has long been the No. 1 prize sought by the Kim family dynasty in Pyongyang, dating to Kim’s grandfather Kim Il-sung, as the ultimate bargaining chip both for its own security and as a means to gain international attention and aid. In February, the North successfully tested a device, that resulted in UN sanctions that the North has protested are undeserved.

The reclusive state declared a “state of war” exists between the two Koreas last weekend, and last month vowed to target Hawaii and Guam with its rockets, though they are not currently thought capable of reaching US bases, nor are they nuclear-tipped.

The Associated Press writes today that:

A spokesman for the North's General Department of Atomic Energy said scientists will quickly begin work "readjusting and restarting" a uranium enrichment plant and a graphite-moderated, 5-megawatt reactor that could produce a bomb's worth of plutonium each year.

AP also quotes North Korean expert Hwang Jihwan at the University of Seoul, South Korea, who argues that Pyongyang’s recent behavior aims at "keeping tension and crisis alive to raise stakes ahead of possible future talks with the United States."

Essentially, reports the AP, "North Korea is asking the world, `What are you going to do about this?' "

Complicating matters is the fact that Kim Jong-un was considered by Western officials a relative unknown until he took over from his father, “Dear Leader” Kim Jong-il last spring. And still, not much is known about him.

Bluster or not, the North’s belligerence has put the Korean peninsula on high alert. Kim Jong-un has scratched the armistice signed after the Korean War, cut military hotlines, brought new South Korean president Park Geun-hye to say that the South will retaliate over any provocations, and caused the US military, which has 28,000 troops in the South, to relocate sensitive radars and to send B-2 Stealth bombers in fly overs.

Yet, the Los Angeles Times today points out:

After the declaration of a "state of war" over the weekend, the White House said no major troop movements were detected in North Korea. White House officials have said the Pyongyang regime has shown no "action to back up the rhetoric."

The U.S. Navy, however, is moving a sea-based radar platform closer to North Korea to track possible missile launches, a Pentagon official said Monday. The support is the latest step to deter the North and reassure South Korea and Japan that the U.S. is committed to their defense.

In one sense, Korea watchers say, the new regime is simply rehashing and upping the volume of an ideology and a language that the North and the Kim family have used for many years to remain in power and keep people unified by the threat of an enemy. 

Being taken seriously by the outside world is an important verification of the Kim regime, which feeds edited broadcasts of world media to its people, whose sources of information are carefully controlled.

Some analysts think officials in Pyongyang are beside themselves with the kind of attention they are now achieving, largely through verbal threats backed up by the nuclear test.

In a theater song performance broadcast to the nation in February, reminiscent of the kind of “ballet” the Chinese used to perform during the Cultural Revolution, a stage backdrop contained the phrase, "Let's strike the imperialists mercilessly with the same success we had carrying out the 3rd nuclear test."

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of 5 free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.