The announcement, made by its official media outlet, came shortly after the regime vowed never to abandon its nuclear capability for political or economic benefits, underlining its demand that the international community accept it as a nuclear power.
The Yongbyon complex, some 60 miles north of Pyongyang, houses a plutonium-based, five-megawatt graphite-moderated reactor and an associated reprocessing plant and nuclear fuel rod fabrication facility.
The facilities were decommissioned as a result of an agreement at “six-party” talks in Beijing in February 2007 that also saw the Bush administration agree to unfreeze $25 million in North Korean funds frozen in its account at a Macao-based bank.
Five months later the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) confirmed that the shutdown was complete.
Amid stepped-up tensions on the peninsula and warlike rhetoric from Pyongyang, a meeting Sunday of the central committee of the Workers’ Party of Korea (WPK), chaired by Kim Jong-un, formalized a strategic plan focusing on expanding the regime’s nuclear arsenal and strengthening the economy.
It declared that nuclear weapons were not being developed to give Pyongyang leverage in negotiations with foreign powers.
“The nuclear weapons … are not goods for getting U.S. dollars and they are neither a political bargaining chip nor a thing for economic dealings,” the official WPK mouthpiece Rodong Sinmun said in its report on the session.
“[North Korea’s] possession of nukes should be fixed by law, and the nuclear armed forces should be expanded and beefed up qualitatively and quantitatively until the denuclearization of the world is realized,” it said.
Using terms in keeping with the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the central committee made an appeal for its status to be recognized.
“As a responsible nuclear weapons state, [North Korea] will make positive efforts to prevent the nuclear proliferation, ensure peace and security in Asia and the rest of the world and realize the denuclearization of the world,” it said.
The NPT recognizes only the U.S., Russia, China, France and Britain as nuclear weapons powers, while also committing them to pursue negotiations on effective measures leading to eventual nuclear disarmament.
Other countries known or assumed to have that capability – India, Pakistan and Israel – have refused to ratify the treaty.
North Korea signed the NPT in 1992 but after years of threats to withdraw finally did so in 2003, becoming the first country to do so.
Expanding on the central committee session’s decisions, Rodong Sinmun said in an editorial: “Our nukes are not for any political bargain or economic transaction; they are life and soul of the nation and national treasure of reunified Korea, which cannot be exchanged for anything.
“We will never abandon our nukes so long as U.S. imperialism does not give up its nukes, and so long as our hostile forces persist in their aggressive schemes menacing socialism.”
Since the early 1990s international diplomacy aimed at resolving concerns about North Korea’s nuclear activities have focused on agreements to shutter the facilities in exchange for diplomatic and economic inducements.
Those efforts produced the Clinton administration’s “Agreed Framework” in 1994; the 2005 six-party “joint statement” on denuclearization and the follow-up 2007 agreement to shut down Yongbyon, negotiated under the Bush administration; and the Obama administration’s February 2012 “Leap Day deal.”
All collapsed – either immediately or after a period of partial implementation – and neither the agreements, nor years of international sanctions, deterred Pyongyang from carrying out nuclear tests in 2006, 2009 and again early this year.
Now Kim Jong-un appears to be returning to a strategy used on occasion by his predecessors – demanding that the international community accept North Korea as a nuclear weapons power, and stepping up belligerent rhetoric to build pressure in support of that demand.
Administration officials on Monday reiterated the long-held U.S. position on the North’s nuclear activities.
“North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile programs constitute a threat to the United States national security and to international peace and security,” said State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland, while White House press secretary Jay Carney said its pursuit of those programs “does not make it more secure but only increases its isolation and seriously undermines its ability to pursue economic development.”
US seeks to avoid ‘miscalculation and provocation’
At a press briefing, Carney said the recent escalation of threats from the North Korea has not been accompanied by stepped-up military activity.
“Despite the harsh rhetoric we are hearing from Pyongyang, we are not seeing changes to the North Korean military posture such as large-scale mobilizations and positioning of forces,” he said.
Carney said the recent headline-grabbing deployments of firepower to the Korean peninsula were intended “to reassure our allies, demonstrate our resolve to the North, and reduce pressure on Seoul to take unilateral action.”
“And we believe this has reduced the chance of miscalculation and provocation,” he said.
Earlier on Monday, South Korean President Park Geun-hye convened a meeting at the defense ministry where she instructed the military to react quickly and powerfully to any “provocations,” without being distracted by political considerations.
“As commander-in-chief of the armed forces, I will trust the military's judgment on abrupt and surprise provocations by North Korea,” the Yonhap state news agency quoted her as telling the meeting.
“Please carry out your duty of guarding the safety of the people without getting distracted even a bit.”
Yonhap described Park’s statement as “unusually tough.” It came after a series of threats capped by the weekend declaration that inter-Korean relations have entered a “state of war.”
Annual joint military exercises between the U.S. and South Korea have now passed their midway point, and are scheduled to continue until the end of April.
This year’s Foal Eagle exercise has seen the deployment of B-52 bombers, two B-2 stealth bombers – which in one uninterrupted mission flew from their base in the U.S. to South Korea, dropped ordinance on a bombing range and then returned home – and most recently two F-22 Raptor stealth fighters.
Pentagon spokesman George Little said Monday the F-22s, deployed from their base in Japan, would remain in South Korea on “static display” as part of the exercise.
Over its two-month run, Foal Eagle will involve some 10,000 U.S. military personnel alongside South Korean troops and include ground, air, naval, expeditionary and special operations.
Several guided missile destroyers from the U.S. Seventh Fleet, home ported in Yokosuka, Japan, have also been involved during March, and on Monday it was reported that one of them was being deployed back to South Korean waters.
Arleigh Burke-class destroyers are equipped with the Aegis system, capable of detecting, tracking and destroying ballistic missiles.