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North Korea to Reactivate Nuke Plant

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N. Korea to reactivate nuke plant

NBC, MSNBC AND NEWS SERVICES

SEOUL, South Korea, Dec. 12 — Further straining its already tense relationship with the United States, North Korea said Thursday it will immediately reactivate a nuclear power plant that U.S. officials suspect was being used to develop weapons. The move comes just days after the United States intercepted and then released a North Korean freighter that was delivering Scud-like missiles to Yemen. The White House said the latest North Korean decision was regrettable and said it wanted to resolve the problem peacefully.

NORTH KOREA’S defiant declaration Thursday that it will restart a reactor at Yongbyon as well as build other unfinished facilities intensifies old fears its nuclear ambitions could undermine global stability.

The North has said the plutonium-based nuclear program it froze in a 1994 deal with Washington was designed to alleviate its energy shortages. Pyongyang said Thursday that it was reviving the reactor program to make up for the loss of energy caused by Washington’s suspension of fuel oil shipments.

But security experts said that North Korea likely made one or two nuclear weapons using plutonium it extracted from the Soviet-designed reactor before it froze the program.

One immediate concern is the fate of plutonium fuel rods that were separated from a frozen 5-megawatt reactor and stored under supervision of inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA.

North Korea could reprocess the plutonium into a form useful for the making of nuclear weapons in “a matter of months” if it removes the rods from IAEA supervision, Secretary of State Colin Powell said last month.

“North Korea might have dozens of nuclear bombs today instead of possibly one or two” if not for the 1994 agreement that froze the nuclear program, Steve LaMontagne, senior analyst at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation in Washington D.C., wrote in an analysis.

Under that deal, known as the Agreed Framework, North Korea suspended its plutonium-based program in exchange for the construction by a U.S.-led consortium of two light-water reactors for civilian purposes, as well as the provision of fuel oil until the reactors are completed.

But the deal unravsday that it was reviving the reactor program to make up for the loss of energy caused by Washington’s suspension of fuel oil shipments.

But security experts said that North Korea likely made one or two nuclear weapons using plutonium it extracted from the Soviet-designed reactor before it froze the program.

One immediate concern is the fate of plutonium fuel rods that were separated from a frozen 5-megawatt reactor and stored under supervision of inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency, or IAEA.

North Korea could reprocess the plutonium into a form useful for the making of nuclear weapons in “a matter of months” if it removes the rods from IAEA supervision, Secretary of State Colin Powell said last month.

“North Korea might have dozens of nuclear bombs today instead of possibly one or two” if not for the 1994 agreement that froze the nuclear program, Steve LaMontagne, senior analyst at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation in Washington D.C., wrote in an analysis.

Under that deal, known as the Agreed Framework, North Korea suspended its plutonium-based program in exchange for the construction by a U.S.-led consortium of two light-water reactors for civilian purposes, as well as the provision of fuel oil until the reactors are completed.

But the deal unraveled after U.S. officials reported that North Korean counterparts acknowledged in October they had a uranium-based nuclear program, which violated the Agreed Framework. To punish the North, the United States and its allies, including South Korea, Japan and the European Union, suspended the oil shipments last month.

BATTLE OF WORDS

A North Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman said his country would revive the old, Soviet-designed reactor and resume construction of other nuclear facilities to supply desperately needed power. KCNA, the North’s state-run news agency, quoted the spokesman but did not name him.

“Our principled stand is that the nuclear crisis on the Korean Peninsula should be resolved peacefully,” the spokesman said. “It’s totally up to the United States whether we will freeze our nuclear facilities again.”

Winter is approaching, and a South Korean government official said on condition of anonymity it would take two months for North Korea to reactivate its old nuclear plant.

North Korea’s justification was rejected by Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., a key member of the House of Representatives on proliferation concerns.

“The claim of North Korean leaders that they need the electricity to replace the heavy fuel oil shipments is specious, since this is a research reled after U.S. officials reported that North Korean counterparts acknowledged in October they had a uranium-based nuclear program, which violated the Agreed Framework. To punish the North, the United States and its allies, including South Korea, Japan and the European Union, suspended the oil shipments last month.

BATTLE OF WORDS

A North Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman said his country would revive the old, Soviet-designed reactor and resume construction of other nuclear facilities to supply desperately needed power. KCNA, the North’s state-run news agency, quoted the spokesman but did not name him.

“Our principled stand is that the nuclear crisis on the Korean Peninsula should be resolved peacefully,” the spokesman said. “It’s totally up to the United States whether we will freeze our nuclear facilities again.”

Winter is approaching, and a South Korean government official said on condition of anonymity it would take two months for North Korea to reactivate its old nuclear plant.

North Korea’s justification was rejected by Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., a key member of the House of Representatives on proliferation concerns.

“The claim of North Korean leaders that they need the electricity to replace the heavy fuel oil shipments is specious, since this is a research reactor, not a power reactor, and since we have long known that the North Koreans were using this reactor for nuclear weapons purposes,” he said.

He said the Bush administration should make clear that technology for two light-water reactors provided under the 1994 Agreed Framework would not be delivered.

“The announcement flies in the face of international consensus that the North Korea regime must fulfill all its commitments, in particular dismantling its nuclear weapons program,” White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said.

He said the United States sought a peaceful resolution to the North Korean dispute and would not enter into dialogue with the North Koreans “in response to threats or broken commitments.”

The foreign ministries of Germany and Russia issued statements saying they were concerned about the North Korean decision. They urged North Korea to abide by its obligations.

It wasn’t clear whether this week’s ship interception influenced North Korea’s decision. After the interception, an editorial in the North’s official newspaper, Rodong Sinmun, said: “It is necessary to heighten vigilance against the U.S. strategy for world supremacy and ‘anti-terrorism war.eactor, not a power reactor, and since we have long known that the North Koreans were using this reactor for nuclear weapons purposes,” he said.

He said the Bush administration should make clear that technology for two light-water reactors provided under the 1994 Agreed Framework would not be delivered.

“The announcement flies in the face of international consensus that the North Korea regime must fulfill all its commitments, in particular dismantling its nuclear weapons program,” White House press secretary Ari Fleischer said.

He said the United States sought a peaceful resolution to the North Korean dispute and would not enter into dialogue with the North Koreans “in response to threats or broken commitments.”

The foreign ministries of Germany and Russia issued statements saying they were concerned about the North Korean decision. They urged North Korea to abide by its obligations.

It wasn’t clear whether this week’s ship interception influenced North Korea’s decision. After the interception, an editorial in the North’s official newspaper, Rodong Sinmun, said: “It is necessary to heighten vigilance against the U.S. strategy for world supremacy and ‘anti-terrorism war.”’

“We can only speculate that (the ship incident) and North Korea’s electricity shortage in the winter propelled North Korea to make a response,” said Kim Sung-han of the state-run Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security in Seoul.

NBC’s Ned Colt reported that the intense secrecy surrounding the decision-making process in Pyongyang makes it impossible to discern whether the announcement was a response to the high-seas interdiction.

URANIUM PROCESSING

Little is known about the country’s nuclear program based on uranium enrichment. However, the consensus among intelligence analysts is that the second program is in its early stages.

Security analysts believe Pakistan, a nuclear power, provided assistance to North Korea in its efforts to acquire gas centrifuges to enrich uranium. In return, they believe, Pakistan received North Korean missile technology. Pakistan has denied the allegation.

U.S. officials have not said whether they think North Korea has built such centrifuges, or used them to produce enriched uranium. Such centrifuges are small, and can easily be hidden.

South Korean intelligence officials have said they were aware of reports of North Korea’s uranium enrichment program for a couple of years. Uranium is abundant in mines in the moun”’

“We can only speculate that (the ship incident) and North Korea’s electricity shortage in the winter propelled North Korea to make a response,” said Kim Sung-han of the state-run Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security in Seoul.

NBC’s Ned Colt reported that the intense secrecy surrounding the decision-making process in Pyongyang makes it impossible to discern whether the announcement was a response to the high-seas interdiction.

URANIUM PROCESSING

Little is known about the country’s nuclear program based on uranium enrichment. However, the consensus among intelligence analysts is that the second program is in its early stages.

Security analysts believe Pakistan, a nuclear power, provided assistance to North Korea in its efforts to acquire gas centrifuges to enrich uranium. In return, they believe, Pakistan received North Korean missile technology. Pakistan has denied the allegation.

U.S. officials have not said whether they think North Korea has built such centrifuges, or used them to produce enriched uranium. Such centrifuges are small, and can easily be hidden.

South Korean intelligence officials have said they were aware of reports of North Korea’s uranium enrichment program for a couple of years. Uranium is abundant in mines in the mountainous North.

North Korea also has a decades-old missile program and there are concerns it could mount a nuclear warhead on such weapons.

This week, a ship carrying North Korean Scud missiles bound for Yemen was seized and released in the Arabian Sea.

North Korea adapted Soviet technology, allegedly importing Scud missiles from Egypt in the 1970s or early 1980s. Similarly, its nuclear research efforts date back to the 1960s, when North Korean students studied the topic in the Soviet Union, then a communist ally.

North Korea also has suspected chemical and biological weapons programs, as well as huge numbers of troops, although they lack modern equipment, spare parts and fuel. South Koreans, many of whom live within artillery range of the Demilitarized Zone on the border, are more concerned about the North’s conventional, rather than nuclear, threat.

REACTION IN THE REGION

South Korean President Kim Dae-jung has sought to reconcile with North Korea. His government urged North Korea to reverse its decision.

“The government expresses deep regret and concern that the North Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman’s statement could create tension on the Korean Peninsula,” Seok Dong-yun, a South Korean Foreign Ministry spokesman, said in a statement.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao said China remained committed to a Korean Peninsula without any nuclear threat but said China remained committed to helping its neighbor.

“China has given North Korea assistance in its difficulties. It will continue to do so,” Liu said.

In Japan, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi spoke carefully. “Any action that may cause the U.S.-North Korea agreement to fall apart is extremely regrettable,” he said.

Under the 1994 pact, North Korea agreed to freeze the plutonium program in return for two modern, light-water reactors built by a U.S.-led consortium. North Korea often complained about delays in construction of the reactors, which are several years behind schedule.

North Korea had a 5-megawatt plutonium reactor and two bigger reactors, with capacities of 50 megawatts and 200 megawatts respectively, under construction when it signed the 1994 agreement with the United States.

Experts say North Korean scientists could quickly reprocess about 8,000 spent plutonium rods into weapons-grade plutonium. Inspectors are monitoring the rods.

At the height of the confrontation over North Korea’s plutonium-based program in 1994, a North Korean negotiator threatened to turn Seoul into “a sea of fire.” Fearing war, residents of the South rushed to stores to stock up on food and other supplies.

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