SEOUL, South Korea
North Korea said Tuesday it will restart its long-shuttered plutonium reactor and increase production of nuclear weapons material, in what outsiders see as its latest attempt to extract U.S. concessions by raising fears of war.
A spokesman for the North’s General Department of Atomic Energy said scientists will quickly begin “readjusting and restarting” the facilities at its main Nyongbyon nuclear complex, including the plutonium reactor and a uranium enrichment plant. Both could produce fuel for nuclear weapons.
The reactor began operations in 1986 but was shut down as part of international nuclear disarmament talks in 2007 that have since stalled. North Korea said work to restart the facilities would begin “without delay.” Experts estimate it could take anywhere from three months to a year to reactivate the reactor.
The nuclear vows and a rising tide of threats in recent weeks are seen as efforts by the North to force disarmament-for-aid talks with Washington and to increase domestic loyalty to young North Korean leader Kim Jong Un by portraying him as a powerful military commander.
Tuesday’s announcement underscores concerns about North Korea’s timetable for building a nuclear-tipped missile that can reach the United States, although it is still believed to be years away from developing that technology.
The U.S. called for North Korea to abandon its nuclear ambitions, saying it would be “extremely alarming” if Pyongyang follows through on a vow to restart its plutonium reactor.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said the U.S. is taking steps to ensure it has the capacity to defend itself and its allies, and that President Barack Obama is being updated regularly. “The entire national security team is focused on it,” Carney said.
But Carney noted that a string of threats from North Korea toward the U.S. and South Korea so far have not been backed up by action, calling the threats part of a counterproductive pattern. He called on Russia and China, two countries he said have influence on North Korea, to use that influence to persuade the North to change course.
China, North Korea’s only major economic and diplomatic supporter, expressed unusual disappointment with its ally. “We noticed North Korea’s statement, which we think is regrettable,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said. South Korea also called it “highly regrettable.”
Yukiya Amano, chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency, said the North’s decision “is another step which is deeply troubling for us and the world.”
U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Tuesday that North Korea appears to be “on a collision course with the international community.” Speaking in Andorra, the former South Korean foreign minister said the crisis has gone too far and that international negotiations are urgently needed.
North Korea is under a U.N. arms embargo over its nuclear program. On Tuesday, it was one of three nations voting against a U.N. treaty regulating international arms trade. Also voting “no” were Iran and Syria.
Hwang Jihwan, a North Korea expert at the University of Seoul, said the North “is keeping tension and crisis alive to raise stakes ahead of possible future talks with the United States.”
“North Korea is asking the world, ‘What are you going to do about this?’” he said.
The unidentified North Korean atomic spokesman said the measure is meant to resolve the country’s acute electricity shortage but is also for “bolstering up the nuclear armed force both in quality and quantity,” according to a statement carried by the official Korean Central News Agency.
The statement suggests the North will do more to produce highly enriched uranium. The technology needed to make highly enriched uranium bombs is much easier to hide than huge plutonium facilities.