Seoul/Washington, Feb. 6 (Reuters): North Korea says it has restarted — or is poised to restart — the atomic plant at the heart of its suspected nuclear arms programme, a move the US called a dangerous development by a “terrorist regime”.
The latest twist in a crisis that began in October came in an English-language North Korean foreign ministry statement, apparently saying the reactor had been started to generate electricity for the energy-starved country.
In a separate development, Britain’s Guardian newspaper quoted a warning from a senior Pyongyang foreign ministry official that North Korea might strike at US forces pre-emptively rather than wait for an American attack after a war with Iraq.
The US reacted strongly with White House spokesman Ari Fleischer saying his country is ready to deal with“any contingencies” involving North Korea.
But he also sought to play down the significance of the warning. “We’ve heard much talk from North Korea before,” Fleischer said.
“The US says that after Iraq, we are next,” the Guardian website quoted ministry deputy director Ri Pyong-gap as saying. “But we have our own countermeasures. Pre-emptive attacks are not the exclusive right of the US,” said Ri.
The North’s ruling party newspaper Rodong Sinmun ratcheted up the rhetoric even further, vowing in a commentary: “When the US makes a surprise attack on our peaceful nuclear facilities it will spark off a total war.”
The formal foreign ministry statement on the reactor said: “The DPRK (North Korea) is now putting the operation of its nuclear facilities for the production of electricity on a normal footing after their restart.”
Thomas Hubbard, the US ambassador to South Korea, said he had no confirmation about the state of the reactor in Yongbyon.
An unnamed South Korean official told the South’s Yonhap news agency the North’s statement was less clear in Korean and could be taken to mean “poised to restart”.
Daniel Pinkston of the Monterey Institute of International Studies had a similar assessment. He said he would be shocked if the Yongbyon reactor was running.
“What they are saying is that they are in the process of normalising, of restarting operations. It could be very soon now,” he said by telephone.“It's just a matter of time.”
Nuclear experts say the reactor, with just five megawatts of capacity, is too small to generate much power but could produce material for atomic bombs.
While officials pondered the semantics, the markets moved and regional powers expressed concern. There were some tough words from Washington but no sign the United States would contemplate ditching diplomacy in favour of a surgical strike on Yongbyon.
”The situation in North Korea is a dangerous one,” U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told the House of Representatives Armed Services Committee in Washington.
”It's a regime that is a terrorist regime...And the fact that they have announced that they are going to breach three or four agreements...is a worrisome thing,” he told reporters.
The news that North Korea had raised the temperature of the nuclear crisis drove South Korea's benchmark Korea Composite Stock Price Index to close down 1.86 percent at 589.50 on Thursday, its third daily drop in a row.
”Investors are worried that the situation may lead to an extreme level as Washington and Pyongyang continue to stand off while Seoul is not properly doing its job as a mediator,” said Oh Hyun-seok, an analyst at Hyundai Securities.
Japan's Kyodo news agency, quoting government sources, said Japan might deploy two destroyers to detect any missile test launches by the North. Unnamed U.S. officials have also said U.S. aircraft and ships could be deployed if needed.
Officials in the South Korean capital, Seoul, declined to comment on the North's reactor announcement. Seoul is an hour's drive from the heavily fortified Demilitarised Zone that bisects the peninsula and is within range of 11,000 North Korean artillery pieces.
”We are all aware that North Korea has the capability to devastate Seoul and neighbouring areas through conventional weapons alone,” Ambassador Hubbard said, repeating that Washington had no intention of attacking the North.
LIMITED U.S. OPTIONS
Rumsfeld said U.S. forces could respond to the nuclear crisis if needed despite preparations for a possible war with Iraq.
A year ago U.S. President George W. Bush bracketed North Korea with Iran and Iraq in an“axis of evil”.
Washington said in October Pyongyang had admitted to enriching uranium in violation of a 1994 accord, under which the North froze its nuclear programme in exchange for two electricity-generating reactors and free fuel.
Since December, North Korea has expelled International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors, withdrawn from the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, restarted the mothballed Yongbyon complex capable of producing weapons-grade plutonium and threatened to resume missile tests.
U.S. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice said North Korea was“very far along” in its nuclear programme.
”It does begin to limit your options,” she told ABC's Nightline television programme, adding that a diplomatic solution remained possible.
Five days ago U.S. officials said U.S. satellite surveillance had shown North Korea was moving fuel rods around the Yongbyon reactor complex, including possibly some of the 8,000 spent fuel rods experts consider a key step in building bombs.
But the U.S. officials added that there was no sign crucial reprocessing of those spent rods had begun -- a step that would enable North Korea to begin bomb-making in weeks, adding to the arsenal of two bombs the West suspects it has already built.
IAEA spokeswoman Melissa Fleming said that, without inspectors in North Korea, the IAEA could not certify any alleged activity. The IAEA is considering handing the nuclear crisis to the U.N. Security Council.