NEW YORK – North Korea announced today that it would restart two facilities at its Yongbyon nuclear complex, a step that will allow the country to start producing weapons grade plutonium and highly enriched uranium (HEU) with “immediate effect”.
A spokesman for North Korea’s Atomic Energy Agency told a reporter from state media outlet KCNA that both a uranium enrichment plant and a 5MW graphite moderated plutonium research reactor located at Yongbyon would be “readjusted” and “restarted”.
A further statement published today by the KCNA said the latest development would allow North Korea to take “practical steps to bolster up the nuclear deterrence and nuclear retaliatory strike power”, both in “quality and quantity”.
The atomic spokesman added that the North Korean atomic energy industry would now be faced with “heavy tasks” in having to simultaneously contribute towards reducing electricity shortages while developing fissile materials for nuclear weapons.
North Korea expert and editor at the Seoul based Daily NK today said that when viewed alongside other developments, the announcement could be seen as an attempt to divide both government and policy experts in Seoul and Washington, DC.
“It’s a great week they are having. They’ve pushed the confrontational envelope, done some political grandstanding in Pyongyang, then set up a new Cabinet Prime Minister with a bit of reformist cred that he may or may not deserve. This provides an angle for pro-talks liberals in Seoul and DC to push, which will result in political divisions in both capitals, though especially Seoul.”
Once restarted, the Yongybon research reactor will be capable of producing approximately 7kg of weapons grade plutonium per year, a quantity some say is enough for one weapon. North Korea’s uranium enrichment facility at the same site allegedly has 2,000 centrifuges, enough to produce approximately 26kg of highly enriched uranium per year, also enough for roughly one weapon per year.
Today’s development was followed by an immediate plea for calm from United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, who added that he was “deeply troubled” by the news. Speaking from the mountain nation of Andorra, he said, “The current crisis has already gone too far…Nuclear threats are not a game. Aggressive rhetoric and military posturing only result in counter-actions, and fuel fear and instability.”
Japan also expressed grave concern at North Korea’s announcement, with Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga telling reporters today that “If North Korea restarts nuclear facilities, it would be provocative enough to violate the resolutions by the six-nation talks as well as the UN Security Council.”
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said that China regretted North Korea’s announcement, adding that Beijing wanted “all parties concerned to remain calm and restrained, return to dialogue and consultation as soon as possible, and jointly seek ways to appropriately resolve the issue.”
North Korea’s plutonium production capability at Yongbyon had previously been frozen since 2007 as part of a deal reached under the long stalled Six Party Talks, originally aimed at denuclearizing the DPRK. A cooling tower at the facility was destroyed in June 2008 as part of North Korea’s step-by-step commitments to the Six Party framework.
In late 2010, North Korea showed a visiting U.S. nuclear delegation a newly produced uranium enrichment facility at the same site, though it is unknown how long this facility has been operational. Siegfried Hecker, who led the group, said he was astounded by what he saw, adding that he believed the facility had been built with outside assistance.
North Korea withdrew from the Six Party Talks in early 2009, following criticism made against it by the United Nations Security Council for conducting a failed satellite launch. While Kim Jong Il expressed interest in rejuvenating talks in May 2010, South Korea said that circumstances surrounding the sinking of its Cheonan vessel would have to be resolved first. North Korea has always denied any involvement in the sinking of the South Korean naval vessel.