N. Korea Defies U.S., Restarts Reactor
Feb. 27, 2003
WASHINGTON (AP) _ Defying the Bush administration, North Korea has restarted a reactor at its main nuclear complex, possibly laying the groundwork for additional atomic weapons beyond the one or two it is believed to possess already.
The disclosure Wednesday was a blow to the administration's reliance on diplomatic pressure to induce the North to set aside its nuclear ambitions.
President Bush called Russian President Vladimir Putin to discuss the crisis and also Iraq, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said Thursday. He provided no details on the conversation, other than to say the two leaders agreed to cooperate on North Korea.
Fleischer reiterated the administration's view that ``North Korea continues to put itself on a path that is provocative and isolationist, that sets itself back from other nations in the region and other nations in the world.''
``North Korea has had a pattern in the past of engaging in activities that they use as blackmail in an effort to obtain rewards from around the world, and that pattern will not be honored,'' Fleischer said.
The U.S. officials, asking not to be identified, said the reactivated facility starts a process that could yield nuclear weapons in about a year.
But Pyongyang could add to its supply much earlier if it restarts a processing plant adjacent to the reactor. The plant could be used to reprocess 8,000 plutonium-laden spent fuel rods at the site; there is enough plutonium there to build five or six bombs in a few months.
A telltale plume was spotted over the reactor just hours after Secretary of State Colin Powell ended a visit to South Korea, where he attended the inauguration of President Roh Moo-Hyun and pledged more than 40,000 tons of food aid for North Korea.
While heading back to Washington, Powell told reporters that North Korea had made ``a wise choice if it's a conscious choice'' not to restart the reactor. It was not long thereafter that satellite photos showed the reactor was no longer idle, officials said.
In Seoul, South Korean Prime Minister Goh Kun said he could not confirm the reports from Washington about the reactor.
He noted that Roh has said the North Korean nuclear program was a ``grave threat'' and that a peaceful solution to the nuclear issue was a top priority.
Melissa Fleming, a spokeswoman for the International Atomic Energy Agency, said in a statement, ``Without the presence of inspectors, the IAEA is not in a position to verify whether North Korea has restarted its reactor.''
``However, if this is true, the IAEA deplores the operation of North Korea's nuclear facilities without the presence of safeguards inspectors,'' she said. ``Starting this now un-safeguarded nuclear facility will further demonstrate North Korea's disregard for its nuclear nonproliferation obligations. The IAEA's board of governors has confirmed that North Korea's safeguards agreement with the IAEA remains biding and in force.''
North Korea insists that its nuclear programs are designed entirely for peaceful purposes, a claim that U.S. officials and private experts reject.
Peter Brookes, an Asia expert at the Heritage Foundation, said North Korea's rundown electrical grid probably couldn't absorb the power produced by the reactor.
The North has been routinely fraying nerves in the region lately, setting off a short-range missile into the Sea of Japan, threatening to abandon the 1953 armistice that ended the Korean War and dispatching a jet fighter into southern air space _ all in the past few days.
All this appears to have undercut the message of peace and reconciliation put forward by Roh, South Korea's new president, who sees a confrontational approach toward his prickly neighbor as a dead end.
Many in South Korea regard the United States as the chief threat to peace. They worry that a U.S. misstep could provoke another Korean War.
Powell sought to dispel such feelings Tuesday, reaffirming his goal of a peaceful solution and promising to work closely with Roh's administration.
He also pledged more than 100,000 tons of food aid to the North this year, a gesture that fit nicely with Roh's own view that friendship toward the North is the best hope for peace.
But Powell hard harsh words for North Korean Chairman Kim Jong Il and his associates.
North Korea's leadership, he said, ``takes what limited resources it has and invests it into an army that hangs over the 38th parallel in great strength, a leadership that spends its limited resources on developing nuclear weapons, resources that should be going to the people.''
North Korea has said the nuclear issue could be discussed in direct U.S.-North Korean talks leading to a nonaggression treaty.
Powell has rejected that approach, pointing out that direct talks in 1994 produced a nuclear agreement that Pyongyang now has violated. As part of that agreement, the Yongbyon reactor was idled.
Powell has been trying to rally support for broad international effort to deal with the problem. He wants to enlist a number of countries, including China, Russia, Japan and South Korea in the process, contending that the implications of the North's programs extend well beyond South Korea and the United States.
Reaction to the proposal has been mixed. The North's violation of its international commitments soon will be taken up by the U.N. Security Council.