North Korea set to reactivate nuclear plant - sources
Author: Teruaki Ueno
Activating the reprocessing plant at the Yongbyon nuclear complex north of its capital, Pyongyang, could pave the way for the isolated communist state to mass-produce weapons-grade plutonium and set the stage for production of atomic warheads.
The sources, speaking on condition of anonymity, said it was only a matter of time before North Korea reactivated the nuclear fuel reprocessing facility.
"The United States has drawn a 'red line', but the North will not hesitate to move beyond that," one of the sources told Reuters. "It's just a matter of time. The North said it would reactivate its nuclear power facilities two month ago. It is moving ahead as scheduled."
The 8,000 spent fuel rods stored at the Yongbyon complex could fuel five or six weapons, or about one bomb a month through the summer, experts say.
Another diplomatic source said preparations were under way to restart the reprocessing plant in an effort to fully operate the nuclear complex for the peaceful purpose of generating power.
"The North will reactivate the nuclear facilities for peaceful purposes. There is nothing wrong with that," he said.
The North Korean crisis was sparked last October when the United States said Pyongyang had admitted developing a secret programme for highly enriched uranium in violation of a landmark 1994 accord and international commitments.
Since then the North has expelled inspectors from the U.N. nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, pulled out of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and threatened to resume missile testing.
U.S. officials said last week that North Korea had restarted a five-megawatt reactor at Yongbyon mothballed in 1994 and was continuing to ready the reprocessing plant.
NO END IN SIGHT
The diplomatic sources said tensions over the North Korean moves would keep escalating until the United States accepted face-to-face talks with Pyongyang, which seeks a non-aggression pact with Washington.
But the Bush administration is insisting that any negotiations with Pyongyang be held in a multilateral context, involving China, Japan, South Korea and possibly also Russia.
"If and when the United States holds talks with the North, things will go all right. It's so simple," one diplomatic source said. "The ball is in the United States' court."
While repeately saying that the crisis should be resolved through peaceful means, Washington has not ruled out military action as an option to settle the standoff with Pyongyang.
A Japanese intelligence source said North Korea was trying to secure concessions from the United States quickly because it was hoping it would not become the next target for a U.S. military attack after Iraq.
"We believe North Korea is paying very close attention to the situation involving Iraq," he said. "That's why they are rushing to play dangerous trump cards one after another."
MISSILE ROW BREWING
Adding to rising tensions in the region, a Japanese newspaper quoted Japanese and U.S. government officials as saying last week that Pyongyang had tested a rocket booster for a Taepodong ballistic missile at a launch site on the country's east coast in January.
But the Japanese intelligence source said Tokyo had not seen any tangible signs that suggested North Korea was preparing to launch a ballistic missile.
"We have not detected any unusual movements which we can regard as signs of preparations for a missile launch," the source said. "But I have to say that in many cases we can't predict what North Korea will do next."
The first diplomatic source said North Korea could take unspecified counter measures if Japan moved ahead with plans to launch its first two spy satellites on March 28.
"The North would feel offended by that," he said.
But he said it was unclear whether Pyongyang would launch a ballistic missile as part of its counter measures against Japan's launch of spy satellites.
North Korea's shock firing in August 1998 of a