North Korea claims to be restarting nuclear reactor

The Yongbyon reactor could be operational again within a year.

A North Korean official says his country has begun to restore a key nuclear reactor, which would help North Korea to restart its plutonium-based nuclear weapons program.

The BBC reports North Korean diplomat Hyun Hak-Bong said his nation was undergoing "thorough preparations" to restart the Yongbyon reactor, which it had been in the process of shutting down in accordance with the disarmament terms of the six-nation treaty it signed in 2007. Mr. Hyun said North Korea was restoring the reactor because the US has failed to fulfill its obligations in the treaty.

When asked when [the reactor] would be restored, he said: "You'll come to know soon." ...
Mr Hyun claimed the process of decommissioning the plutonium-producing reactor at the Yongbyon plant was 90% complete.
But he said Pyongyang would respond to the US by halting the process and "proceeding with works to restore [the reactor] to its original status".

North Korea, which is currently on the US list of countries which sponsor terrorism, destroyed the Yongbyon reactor's cooling tower in June in a highly publicized display of its willingness to halt its nuclear program, reported The Christian Science Monitor in June. North Korea had earlier said it created enough plutonium for several nuclear warheads using the plant.

Agence France-Presse (AFP) reports the International Institute for Strategic Studies, a world security think tank, said Thursday it would take North Korea less than a year to completely restore the reactor.

CNN writes the reactor's restoration began earlier this month, according to South Korean press reports. At the time, US National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe expressed concern about the disarmament process, saying the US thinks "North Korea is taking these steps because it has not been removed from the terrorism list." CNN adds Pyongyang is also at odds with Washington over the verification of North Korean disarmament. The US is insisting on a system to monitor the disarmament, but North Korea has so far refused to accept such a provision.

"The U.S. is gravely mistaken if it thinks it can make a house search in [North Korea] as it pleases just as it did in Iraq," the North Korean Foreign Ministry said in a statement carried by the North's state-run Korean Central News Agency.

Reuters reports North Korea also has denied it wishes to be removed from the terrorism list, which may indicate it plans to renege on the six-party pact.

"The DPRK (North Korea) neither wishes to be delisted as a 'state sponsor of terrorism' nor expects such a thing to happen," the North's official KCNA news agency quoted a Foreign Ministry spokesman as saying.

AFP writes that Hyun also said media reports that Kim Jong Il, North Korea's leader, is ill are untrue. But The Wall Street Journal writes that US officials are not so sure.

U.S. officials say Pyongyang's hardening rhetoric coincides with the mid-August date that North Korea's dictator is believed to have suffered a stroke. American officials say there's a possibility that North Korea's powerful military, the Korean People's Army, is using a power vacuum in Pyongyang to roll back the country's commitments under the nuclear accord.
"The North Korean military was extremely hostile to the agreement from the beginning," said a U.S. diplomat, adding that the army appeared to be behind the move to reverse the dismantling of the Yongbyon reactor. In the Aug. 26 statement, North Korea's Foreign Ministry said the steps to restore the reactor were "strongly requested by its relevant institutions."

Bloomberg reports the US is closely monitoring the situation, according to Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, as Mr. Kim's condition could impact the stability of North Korea. But even if the situation requires military action, Mr. Gates said, the US is capable of responding, despite its military commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"At this point it's not entirely clear how seriously ill he is," Gates told reporters yesterday in London, where he is holding informal talks with NATO counterparts. The U.S. and "all of North Korea's neighbors are concerned about instability, in no small part because of the possibility of large flows of refugees." ...
Gates said he foresaw no repercussions for U.S. troop commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan if a conflict erupts between South Korea and North Korea. ...
"If there ever should be a conflict, the main American contribution is not ground forces," said Gates. "So the connection with Afghanistan and Iraq, I think, is irrelevant."

North Korea's admission that it is restoring its nuclear program follows a report that Pyongyang has also continued development of long-range missiles. South Korea's The Chosun Ilbo reported on Thursday that North Korea reportedly tested the engine of a long-range missile earlier this year at a base under construction near North Korea's western coast. The paper writes the missile base only became known to the media in the past week, though Bloomberg notes South Korean officials say they have been aware of the base "for some time." Bloomberg adds the US could not confirm the missile test, but said such a test would violate a UN Security Council resolution, which was enacted in response to North Korea's October 2006 underground nuclear test.

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