Pacific Rim Bureau (CNSNews.com) - The North Koreans have fired up a formerly mothballed nuclear reactor in the last 24 hours, according to unnamed U.S. officials cited in wire reports.
There was no immediate confirmation from regional governments, although a Japanese official was quoted in a Tokyo report as saying North Korea "may have resumed" operation of the reactor.
Experts have said restarting the five-megawatt reactor at Yongbyon could enable North Korea to produce 5.5 kilograms of plutonium annually and start manufacturing nuclear weapons within a year.
The reclusive communist state said recently it needed to restart the frozen program to generate badly needed electricity and that the reactor would only be used the peaceful purposes "at the present stage."
But U.S. officials and analysts reacted by saying the amount of power the small reactor could generate was negligible and voiced skepticism that this was the real intention.
The officials reporting the reactor start-up said there was no sign yet that the North Koreans had also restarted a nuclear fuel processing facility that is also located at Yongbyon, about 90 kilometers north of Pyongyang.
That facility now stores some 8,000 spent fuel rods, which is sealed in airtight stainless steel canisters. Experts warn sufficient plutonium could be extracted from the rods to build up to five bombs within months.
The latest report comes soon after U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell told reporters Tuesday that the North Koreans had not yet restarted the nuclear facilities, which he said was "a wise choice if it's a conscious choice."
Powell, who was speaking en route home after attending the inauguration of South Korea's new president, Roh Moo-hyun, warned that starting up the facilities would "change the entire political landscape."
The reported move, coming amid a mounting dispute with the United States, is not unexpected.
North Korea late last year began the process of reactivating the reactor, which was put out of commission, along with related facilities, as a result of a 1994 deal with the U.S. called the Agreed Framework.
In December, it removed International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) seals and surveillance cameras from the facilities, kicked out the agency's on-site monitors and then was reported to be moving fuel to the reactor in preparation for resuming operations.
This month, Pyongyang announced that the program had been restarted, although it was only Wednesday that the reactor was actually working again, according to the U.S. officials.
The Agreed Framework began to unravel last October, when the North Koreans admitted to visiting U.S. diplomats that they had embarked on a separate, uranium-enrichment program in contravention of the 1994 deal.
Because of the violation, which the State Department said had begun years earlier, the U.S. and its allies decided to suspend the shipment of heavy fuel oil to Pyongyang - another element of the agreement.
North Korea then said it had no choice but to restart its frozen program to generate power.
Pyongyang has been demanding bilateral talks with Washington and a written non-aggression treaty. The U.S. says the dispute is an international one and wants it resolved in a multilateral setting, involving the U.N. and Asian countries.
The crisis has also seen North Korea withdraw from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, threaten to walk away from the armistice agreement that ended the 1950-53 Korean War and warn that it could resume missile tests.
Early this week, South Korea announced that the North had tested a short-range, anti-ship missile in international waters between the peninsula and Japan.
The Security Council has begun discussing the standoff, after the IAEA referred the matter to the U.N.
During his short visit to the region, Powell held talks with the Chinese, focusing on both Iraq and North Korea.
Beijing is North Korea's closest ally and biggest economic partner, and analysts say it holds considerable influence - but seems reluctant to use it against its fellow communist neighbor.
Australia, another Pacific nation involved in diplomacy efforts, also urged China to up its efforts.
Foreign Minister Alexander Downer held talks with senior Chinese officials on the sidelines of the Roh inauguration.
Downer said afterwards he had urged Beijing to "maximize its influence to get North Korea to participate" in multilateral efforts to end the crisis.
The Center for Security Policy in Washington, for one, is not optimistic that the Chinese will exert the pressure needed to get North Korea to change direction.
"Unfortunately, Beijing's idea of a positive role seems to be basically one of supporting Pyongyang in its insistence that it will only participate in direct, bilateral negotiations with the United States, aimed at advancing the North's extortionist agenda," a spokesman said Tuesday.
The spokesman also said China was using North Korea as its proxy in the struggle to displace the U.S. as the dominant power in the region.
Beijing's agenda was not to see a nuclear-free Korean peninsula, but a U.S.-free Asia, the spokesman said.
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