North Korea to restart nuclear reactor

North Korea says it is preparing to restart the Yongbyon reactor amid a deadlock in international disarmament talks.

This photo taken in May 1992 shows an external view of the Yongbyon-1 nuclear power plant in North Korea.
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PANMUNJOM, KOREA // North Korea said today it is making "thorough preparations" to restart its nuclear reactor, accusing the United States of failing to fulfil its obligations under an international disarmament-for-aid agreement. It is the first time the communist nation has confirmed that it is reversing steps taken earlier to disable its nuclear program, although it had previously threatened to do so because of Washington's refusal to quickly remove it from a US terrorism blacklist.

"We are making thorough preparations for restoration" of the Yongbyon nuclear complex, said the deputy director-general of North Korea's Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Hyun Hak Bong. He did not say when Yongbyon might begin operating again. Mr Hyun spoke to reporters in the border village of Panmunjom before sitting down for talks today with South Korean officials on sending energy aid to the North as part of the six-nation disarmament deal.

Under the landmark 2007 pact - involving the two Koreas, the US, China, Russia and Japan - North Korea pledged to disable its nuclear program in a step toward its eventual dismantlement in exchange for diplomatic concessions and energy aid equivalent to one million tonnes of oil. North Korea began disabling the Yongbyon complex last year, and the process was 90 per cent complete, with eight of 11 key steps carried out "perfectly and flawlessly", Mr Hyun said. Major progress was made in the agreement in late June when North Korea submitted a long-delayed declaration of its nuclear activities and destroyed the cooling tower at Yongbyon in a show of its commitment to denuclearisation. But the accord ran aground in mid-August when Washington refused to take North Korea off its list of states that sponsor terrorism until the North accepts a plan to verify its nuclear declaration. North Korea responded by halting the disabling process and is now "proceeding with work to restore (Yongbyon) to its original status", Mr Hyun said.

South Korean and US officials have said it would take at least a year for North Korea to restart the reactor if it is completely disabled. Mr Hyun warned Washington not to press the verification issue, saying verification was never part of the disarmament deal. "The US is insisting that we accept unilateral demands that had not been agreed upon. They want to go anywhere at any time to collect samples and carry out examinations with measuring equipment," he said. "That means they intend to force an inspection."

He said forcing North Korea to comply with such an inspection would exacerbate tensions. The White House had no immediate reaction. The six-nation talks last convened in July, and a new round has not been scheduled because of the current standoff between the US and North Korea. However, today's talks between the two Koreas - which were proposed by the North - indicate it does not want to completely scuttle the six-party negotiations, analysts said.

The tensions come amid reports that North Korean leader Kim Jong Il has suffered a stroke. Kim, 66, has not been seen in public for more than a month and has missed two major public events: a military parade marking North Korea's 60th birthday and the Korean Thanksgiving holiday. *AP