By FOSTER KLUG and HYUNG-JIN KIM, Associated Press
SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — North Korea said Tuesday it will escalate production of nuclear weapons material, including restarting a long-shuttered plutonium reactor, in what outsiders see as Pyongyang's 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 work "readjusting and restarting" a uranium enrichment plant and a graphite-moderated, 5-megawatt reactor that could produce a bomb's worth of plutonium each year. Experts considered the uranium announcement to be a public declaration from Pyongyang that it will make highly enriched uranium that could be used for bomb fuel.
The plutonium reactor began operations in 1986 but was shut down in 2007 as part of international nuclear disarmament talks that have since stalled. It wasn't immediately clear if North Korea had already begun work to restart facilities at its main Nyongbyon nuclear complex. Experts estimate it could take anywhere from three months to a year to reactivate the reactor.
The announcement will boost concerns in Washington and among its allies 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 nuclear vows and a rising tide of threats in recent weeks are seen as efforts by Pyongyang 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.
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, which like plutonium can be used to make nuclear weapons. Uranium worries outsiders because the technology needed to make highly enriched uranium bombs is much easier to hide than huge plutonium facilities. North Korea previously insisted that its uranium enrichment was for electricity — meaning low enriched uranium.
Kim Jin Moo, a North Korea expert at the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses in South Korea, said that by announcing it is "readjusting" all nuclear facilities, including a uranium enrichment plant, North Korea "is blackmailing the international community by suggesting that it will now produce weapons-grade, highly enriched uranium."
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 international negotiations are urgently needed.
China, Pyongyang's only major economic and diplomatic supporter, expressed unusual disappointment with Pyongyang. "We noticed North Korea's statement, which we think is regrettable," said Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei. Seoul also called it "highly regrettable."
The North's plutonium reactor generates spent fuel rods laced with plutonium and is the core of Nyongbyon. It was disabled under a 2007 deal made at now-dormant aid-for-disarmament negotiations involving the North, the U.S., South Korea, Japan, China and Russia.
In 2008, North Korea destroyed the cooling tower at Nyongbyon in a show of commitment, but the deal later stalled after North Korea balked at allowing intensive international fact-checking of its past nuclear activities. Pyongyang pulled out of the talks after international condemnation of its long-range rocket test in April 2009.