North Korea said Tuesday it would restart a nuclear reactor that makes plutonium and refurbish a uranium-enrichment plant to produce fissile material for atomic weapons.
The announcement did not give a date when the work might be completed, and scholars say the severity of the new threat depends on how much progress North Korea has made toward building a bomb small enough to fit atop a missile warhead.
North Korea has carried out three underground nuclear tests, in 2006, 2009 and last month.
“There is still a long ways from underground nuclear tests to deliverable nuclear weapons,” said Bruce Bennett, a political scientist at the Rand Corp., a Santa Monica, Calif.-based think tank with historic ties to the U.S. military.
“I would still argue that North Korea is a nuclear experimenter, not a nuclear power,” he said.
“To agonize over exactly what stage of the weaponization process they have reached is to misunderstand the problem,” said Henry D. Sokolski, the executive director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center.
The real issues, he said, are the intentions of the North Korean leadership, headed by an untested 30-something commander in chief who has been in office for less than a year.
“Nobody has a good read on him,” Mr. Sokolski said.
Moreover, estimates of technical progress by Pyongyang might be inaccurate or misinformed, he cautioned.
“I believe that we don’t know as much as we think we do about what their [nuclear] capabilities are,” he said.
The North Korean reactor, which generated only five megawatts, enough electricity to light about 2,500 homes, was closed down and its cooling tower demolished in 2007 as part of an energy-for-disarmament deal that Pyongyang later reneged on.
By some estimates, the reactor could be brought back online in as little as six months and produce up to two bombs’ worth of plutonium a year.
The plant was never intended to generate electricity, said retired military intelligence analyst John McCreary, now with Kforce Government Solutions.
“The site does not have huge pylons carrying high voltage wires leading away from it that are associated with large scale power generation,” he told The Washington Times.