North Korea said yesterday that it will restart a small nuclear reactor it shut down eight years ago and resume building two larger reactors, another blow to a 1994 agreement by the communist state to stop making fuel for atom bombs.
The Bush administration called the move “regrettable” and said it would not be dragged to the negotiating table by threats from Pyongyang.
The North Korean Foreign Ministry said the government was reopening a five-megawatt experimental nuclear power plant in Yongbyon, north of Pyongyang, to compensate for its recent loss of monthly fuel-oil shipments from the United States.
“The prevailing situation compelled the government to lift its measure for nuclear freeze and immediately resume the operation and construction of its nuclear facilities to generate electricity,” said the North Korean statement carried by the state-run Korean Central News Agency.
The statement said that any decision on whether North Korea “refreezes its nuclear facilities or not hinges upon” the United States.
The U.S.-led Korean Peninsula Development Organization (KEDO) last month suspended the oil shipments a decision that followed North Korea’s admission in early October to having a secret uranium-enrichment program.
Both uranium being made in the newly disclosed program and plutonium, which North Korea has admitted extracting from its old experimental reactor, can be used to make atom bombs.
The oil deliveries were part of a complicated deal between North Korea and the United States, South Korea and Japan to end a crisis that brought the Korean Peninsula dangerously close to war.
Under the deal, known as the Agreed Framework, the oil shipments were to supply the North’s energy needs while KEDO built two civilian nuclear power stations.
The North Korean statement yesterday blamed Washington for having “nullified” the framework by not building the new reactors on time and not improving relations with Pyongyang.
“The U.S. cannot escape its responsibility for utterly trampling on the terms and spirit of the Agreed Framework by designating us as an ‘axis of evil’ and target of pre-emptive nuclear attacks,” it said yesterday.
North Korea today accused the United States of piracy in the seizure of a ship carrying missile shipments to Yemen.
This week, the U.S. military, assisted by Spanish warships, seized a North Korean ship carrying at least 15 short- and medium-range Scud missiles in the Arabian Sea.
The ship was released a day later and allowed to sail on after high-level diplomacy between the United States and Yemen.
The Bush administration avoided matching North Korea’s rhetorical style and kept its comments low-key.
“Not every issue requires a potential military response. There’s ways to keep the peace through diplomatic pressure, through alliance and that’s what we’re doing in the Korean Peninsula,” President Bush said in an interview with ABC.
White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer told reporters, “The announcement flies in the face of international consensus that the North Korean regime must fulfill all its commitments, in particular dismantle its nuclear weapons program.”
Mr. Fleischer also said the administration would not enter into dialogue with the North Koreans “in response to threats or broken commitments.”
U.S. officials said Washington’s response to yesterday’s announcement was deliberately “measured,” because “anything we say” will affect the ongoing presidential election campaign in South Korea.
“We want to play down the crisis,” an official said.
South Korea, which votes for president on Thursday, has to choose between a hawk and a dove on policy toward North Korea.
Roh Moo-hyun, from the ruling Millennium Democratic Party of outgoing President Kim Dae-jung, supports Mr. Kim’s “sunshine policy” of engagement with the North.
His challenger, Lee Hoi-chang, an advocate of a tougher approach, demands reciprocity from North Korea before granting further concessions to the North.
The U.S. official said the Bush administration wanted to hear how South Korea and Japan, as well as Russia and China, will react to yesterday’s news. Moscow and Beijing, Pyongyang’s closest friends, called on Kim Jong-il’s reclusive regime last week to suspend its latest nuclear weapons program.
“We want to consult with our allies and others in the region and step up pressure on North Korea together,” the official said.
South Korea yesterday expressed “strong regret and serious concern” and said it “will be closely monitoring North Korea’s actions, while strengthening Korea-U.S.-Japan cooperation and coordination with other concerned countries.”
Japan called for a calm response, with Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi saying: “If you read the North Korean announcement carefully, their consistent stance is to seek a peaceful resolution.”
Earlier this week, the U.S. Navy detained a ship carrying North Korean Scud missiles to Yemen and later released it because the missile sale turned out to be legal.
U.S. officials said Pyongyang is clearly seeking attention at a time when Washington is preoccupied with Iraq.
“They hate being ignored,” one administration official said. “But we have a policy of containment and isolation, and we’ll let that regime rot with it.”