Seoul/Washington, Feb. 27 (Reuters): North Korea has restarted the reactor at the heart of its suspected drive for nuclear weapons, raising the stakes in its diplomatic showdown with the US.
The activation of the small research reactor at Yongbyon, the communist North’s latest step in a crisis that erupted last year, comes as the US prepares for war with Iraq and South Korea forms a new government.
“I think this is another example of the regime of North Korea taking escalatory actions in order to gain concessions,” said Sean McCormack, the White House National Security Council spokesman. “We seek a peaceful diplomatic solution, but all options remain on the table.”
US officials said there was no sign North Korea had reactivated its nuclear fuel reprocessing plant, which would be of even greater concern because it would take the North a step closer to adding to the two nuclear bombs it is believed to have. “Part of this demonstrates their desire to continue their nuclear weapons programme and it’s another effort to apply pressure on the US,” another US official said.
Analysts in Seoul saw the move as yet another North Korean attempt to shake new President Roh Moo-hyun, who has been at odds with Washington over how to deal with the crisis. The North upstaged Roh’s inauguration on Tuesday by firing a short-range missile into international waters off its east coast.
In Beijing, China and Russia—friends of North Korea and permanent members of the UN Security Council—issued a joint communiqué promising to push for dialogue between the US and North Korea to resolve the nuclear crisis. “China and Russia will try their best to push for dialogue between the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) and the US,” the communiqué said.
Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Kong Quan said: “We believe the main thing at the moment is that each side keeps calm and exercises restraint and avoids taking action that will escalate the situation.”
Reaction in Seoul to North Korea’s latest move was muted, as Roh finalised his cabinet. “We are trying to find out more,” said a South Korean source, adding Seoul would hold consultations with allies Japan and the US. “Even in the US it is still at the level of intelligence, very raw intelligence.”
In Tokyo, Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi urged a calm and cautious response while the news was being analysed. “We have received information that it has been restarted. We don’t know yet to what degree,” he told reporters.
A US official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the intelligence was obtained through satellite photographs.
There was no statement on the reactor from North Korea’s official Korean Central News Agency, the main outlet for announcements from Pyongyang.