N. Korea's Defiant Tone Masks Problems Restarting Nuclear Program

By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, April 15, 2009; 7:52 PM

TOKYO, April 15 -- Despite its defiant vow to restart a plant that makes plutonium, North Korea's capacity to add to its small nuclear arsenal is limited by aging technology and by machinery that was disabled as part of a disarmament deal.

Using fuel rods now in storage, the North could process enough plutonium for one nuclear weapon within six months, according to expert assessments.

But it would take 6 to 12 months to restart all facilities at the Yongbyon nuclear plant, and its capacity to produce plutonium is limited to about one bomb's worth of material a year, according to a published assessment by Siegfried S. Hecker, a periodic visitor to the plant and a former director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory. Other experts with on-the-ground knowledge said it would probably take much longer for Yongbyon, a Soviet-era facility where maintenance has been neglected, to resume production.

North Korea, angry at the U.N. Security Council for condemning its recent missile launch, ordered U.N. nuclear inspectors out of the country on Tuesday and said it would never participate again in six-country nuclear negotiations. In response, the White House called on the Communist government to "cease its provocative threats" and honor its commitments.

North Korea had warned before launching the missile on April 5 that it would tolerate no international criticism of what it said was a peaceful attempt to put a satellite into orbit. Soon after the Security Council vote on Monday, North Korea renounced previous agreements to abandon in nuclear program and said it would "revive" its nuclear facilities.

Still, before it can reactivate its plant, the cooling tower at Yongbyon will have to be rebuilt, according to Cha Du-hyeogn, an expert at the Korea Institute for Defense Analysis, a semi-government think tank in Seoul. North Korea blew up the cooling tower last year in an attention-grabbing display of its commitment to abandon its nuclear program in exchange for food, fuel and diplomatic concessions.

The North's declaration on Tuesday that it would "never participate" in six-party nuclear talks with the United States, Russia, China, South Korea and Japan should also be viewed as an attention-grabbing display -- and not as a final renunciation of arms negotiations, several analysts and weapons experts said.

"Rebuilding the cooling tower would take at least six months, and this means that negotiations with North Korea can stretch out to the next six months," Cha said.

North Korea wants out of the six-party talks, which have dragged on since 2003, so that it can negotiate directly with the Obama administration, said Kim Sung-han, a professor of international relations at Korea University.

"What North Korea wants is to strike a grand bargain with the United States so it can be recognized as a nuclear state and normalize diplomatic relations with Washington," Kim said.

The Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency said North Korea has ordered its inspectors out of the country as soon as possible. They left Yongbyon on Wednesday after removing inspection seals from the plant. But North Korea has kicked them out on several previous occasions, only to invite them back when arms talks resumed.

If it follows through on its threats, North Korea will turn away from negotiations that 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.

North Korea stunned the world in 2006 by exploding a small nuclear device and has since declared it has "weaponized" its entire plutonium stockpile, which it says totals 57 pounds and which experts say would be enough to build four or five relatively primitive bombs.

Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates acknowledges that North Korea "has built several bombs," and a Defense Department report last fall said the North is developing "delivery systems" for them.

Prior to its recent missile launch, North Korea said that 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, 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.

Special correspondent Stella Kim in Seoul contributed to this report.


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