By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, April 15, 2009
TOKYO, April 14 -- Fuming at the U.N. Security Council for condemning its missile launch, North Korea ordered U.N. nuclear inspectors out of the country on Tuesday, said it will restart its plutonium factory and vowed never to participate again in six-country nuclear negotiations.
In response, the White House called on North Korea to "cease its provocative threats" and honor its commitments.
North Korea had warned before launching a long-range missile on April 5 that it would tolerate no U.N. criticism of what it insisted was a peaceful attempt to put a satellite into orbit. When the 15-member Security Council unanimously condemned that launch on Monday and demanded a halt to future missile launches, the North's reaction was swift and vitriolic.
It called the Security Council's statement "brigandish," "wanton" and "unjust." It said six-party nuclear talks with the United States, South Korea, Japan, Russia and China had "turned into a platform" for forcing the North to disarm and for bringing down its system of government.
"We have no choice but to further strengthen our nuclear deterrent to cope with additional military threats by hostile forces," North Korea's Foreign Ministry said in a statement released by the state news agency.
But analysts in Seoul said North Korea appeared to be up to its familiar tactic of brinkmanship -- creating a crisis in order to be rewarded for helping to solve it.
"North Korea can use today's walkout as a negotiating chip with the United States in the future," said Koh Yu-whan, a professor of North Korean studies at Dongguk University in Seoul.
In Vienna, a spokesman for the International Atomic Energy Agency said North Korea had ordered the agency to remove all its inspectors and surveillance equipment from the plant in Yongbyon where the North Koreans previously processed bomb-grade plutonium. North Korea has kicked out the inspectors a number of times in the past, including in 2002 and 2008, precipitating a diplomatic crisis on each occasion.
If it follows through on Tuesday's bluster, North Korea will walk away from six years of slow and fitful but sometimes productive negotiations that have led to substantial disablement of its Yongbyon reactor and partial disclosure of the scale of its weapons program.
The talks, in turn, have rewarded the government of Kim Jong Il with food, fuel and removal from a U.S. list of countries that sponsor terrorism. The Obama administration has said it wants to resume the talks, which stalled last year in a dispute about how to verify the North's past nuclear activity.
That activity, judging from the North's statement Tuesday, may soon increase.
"We will actively consider building our own light-water nuclear reactor, will revive nuclear facilities and reprocess used nuclear fuel rods," the ministry said, though international experts have said the North does not have the equipment or skills to make an advanced light-water reactor.
China, North Korea's closest ally and the host of the six-party talks, called for restraint and calm, asking all countries to return to the discussions. Japan also urged North Korea to return to the talks, and the Russian government said it regretted Pyongyang's decision.
In Washington, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs called North Korea's threat to withdraw from the six-party talks and restart its nuclear program "a serious step in the wrong direction." He said at a news briefing that Pyongyang would not achieve international acceptance unless it abandoned its pursuit of nuclear weapons.
"We call on North Korea to cease its provocative threats, to respect the will of the international community and to honor its international commitments and obligations," Gibbs said.
North Korea caused an international furor in 2006 by testing a small nuclear device. Less than a year later, it pledged to abandon its nuclear weapons in return for aid from the United States and other countries.
"North Koreans have learned from past experience that when they create worst-case scenarios, they get closer to solving their problems," said Chun Hyun-joon, a North Korea specialist at the Korea Institute for National Unification in Seoul.
In dealing with its neighbors, North Korea often indulges in rhetorical overkill, threatening "all-out war" and "merciless" destruction of its enemies. Asian governments and stock markets have grown accustomed to the rhetoric and often ignore it. That seemed to be the case Tuesday as markets in Seoul and Tokyo appeared unaffected by Pyongyang's threats.
Before North Korea launched its missile, it alerted foreign shipping and air-travel organizations about the time, trajectory and probable splashdown zones, and it said international law allows all countries to engage in peaceful space exploration. But the United States and many other countries said the launch was a provocative test of technology that could one day deliver a nuclear warhead.
In the end, the launch failed to put anything into orbit. All three stages of the rocket, along with its payload, splashed into the Sea of Japan or the Pacific, according to the U.S. military.
The Security Council statement that prompted North Korea's fury was a compromise that evolved over the weekend, as Japan and the United States pressured China and Russia to speak out against the launch. Instead of imposing new sanctions on North Korea, the Security Council adopted a nonbinding statement that condemned the launch as a violation of a 2006 resolution banning all North Korean missile activity.
The missile launch has been a propaganda extravaganza inside North Korea. It kicked off several days of celebrations that culminated last Thursday in Kim's reappointment as chairman of the National Defense Commission, which runs the military and is the state's supreme decision-making body.
Kim, 67, who is recovering from a stroke he suffered last year, seems to have used the launch in a campaign to convince North Koreans that he is strong and fully in charge. He has shaken up the top leadership of the government and the military. He also has made campaign-style appearances at farms, factories and military bases.
Video images of Kim, the first since his stroke, were broadcast on North Korean television last week as he presided over a meeting of the country's rubber-stamp parliament. Those images, though, cast some doubt on his vigor. He has aged dramatically since last summer. Once chubby, he has become thin, and skin sags on his face.
Special correspondent Stella Kim in Seoul contributed to this report.