SEOUL • North Korea has provoked fresh tensions on the peninsula, announcing first a possible satellite launch and then confirming that its plutonium reactor at a nuclear facility has resumed normal operations.
The confirmation yesterday by the head of the North's Atomic Energy Institute (AEI) of the resumption of the nuclear reactor seen as its main source of weapons-grade plutonium raises a further red flag, amid growing signs the North may be considering a long-range rocket launch next month in violation of United Nations resolutions.
In an interview with the North's official KCNA news agency, the AEI's director said all facilities at the Yongbyon nuclear complex - including a 5MW reactor - had "started normal operations".
North Korea mothballed the Yongbyon reactor in 2007 under an aid-for-disarmament accord, but began renovating it in 2013. Since then, satellite imagery has suggested its partial and intermittent restart. When fully operational, it is capable of producing around 6kg of plutonium a year - enough for one nuclear bomb, experts say.
The unnamed AEI director said it had been "steadily improving" both the quality and quantity of the North's nuclear deterrent and issued a warning to the United States: "If the US and other hostile forces persistently seek their reckless hostile policy... (North Korea) is fully ready to cope with them with nuclear weapons any time."
The move followed strong hints from Pyongyang at a possible satellite launch, triggering a warning from the South that such a launch would be a "serious" provocation.
The head of North Korea's space programme had suggested on Monday that Pyongyang was considering the satellite launch to mark the 70th anniversary of the founding of the ruling Workers' Party on Oct 10.
The North also indicated that the new satellite would be put into orbit using a rocket that is widely seen as an intercontinental ballistic missile in the making. "The world will clearly see a series of satellites of military-first Korea soaring into the sky," KCNA quoted the head of the North's National Aerospace Development Administration as saying, adding it was in the "final phase" of developing the satellite.
The North insists its rocket launches are intended to put peaceful satellites into orbit, and the aerospace official quoted by the state news agency said the satellite would gather data for weather forecasting. But the United States and its allies see the launches as disguised ballistic missile tests.
"Any launch of a ballistic missile by North Korea is a serious act of provocation," Defence Ministry spokesman Kim Min Seok told a regular press briefing. "It is a military threat and a clear violation of the UN resolutions banning (North Korea) from any activities using ballistic missile technology."
A US State Department spokesman said any satellite launch by the North would be a "clear violation" of UN Security Council resolutions. Japanese government spokesman Yoshihide Suga urged Pyongyang "to refrain from taking provocative action". China also called on Pyongyang to "earnestly adhere" to UN resolutions, and warned against actions that might escalate tensions on the peninsula.
South Korean analysts were divided as to whether the North would push ahead with an October launch, given the inevitable international fallout. "These hints might just be aimed at testing the waters," said Inje University's Professor Kim Yeon Chul. "North Korea might see the threat of a satellite launch as a way to exert leverage, whether on Seoul, the US or its main ally China."
Some analysts pointed to Chinese President Xi Jinping's state visit to the US later this month as a reason for the North's recent statements. "Pyongyang wants the North Korea issue high on the agenda of Xi's talks with President (Barack) Obama," said Dongguk University North Korea expert Koh Yu Hwan. "The North always wants the attention of the global community and knows that flagging its weapons programmes is one way to get it."
NEW YORK TIMES, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE