North Korea said it has restarted its nuclear facilities at Yongbyon, adding to the controversy over the country's nuclear ambitions. For now, North Korea says, the plant will be used to make electricity. Pyongyang's announcement comes less than a week after U.S. news reports said North Korea may be removing spent fuel rods from Yongbyon as a first step toward resuming its nuclear weapons program.
According to recent news reports, U.S. satellite photos show trucks at the Yongbyon nuclear facility, where about 8,000 spent fuel rods have been stored during the past decade. If North Korea is removing those rods, that could mean it is getting ready to reprocess the fuel to make weapons-grade plutonium.
In 1994, North Korea agreed to shut down its facility at Yongbyon and stop its nuclear weapons program in exchange for U.S., South Korean, and Japanese help in building less controversial nuclear energy plants.
Last October, the United States said North Korea has nevertheless continued a secret uranium enrichment program. Then, Pyongyang expelled international weapons inspectors from Yongbyon, withdrew from the Nuclear Non-proliferation treaty and threatened to resume building nuclear weapons.
Northeast Asia specialist Joel Wit said the U.S. government knows how much bomb-making material is at Yongbyon and how long it would take to reprocess the fuel rods. "We know a great deal, and that is because for a couple of years we were helping the North Koreans store these fuel rods. There were American technicians on the ground at their nuclear facility working together with the North Koreans in storing these rods. And I visited that facility a couple of times as a State Department official," Mr. Wit said.
Mr. Wit, now a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said within a month, North Korea could start up the plant that separates the plutonium from the waste products in the fuel rods.
"And it can churn out enough material probably for one additional bomb per month over the next six months. It does not have to wait until the end of the six months to remove the plutonium from the facility. It can remove about a bomb's worth every month. So, it will be a very steady process," he explained.
Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage told a Senate committee Tuesday North Korea could have enough fissile material within a few months to make four to six nuclear weapons. He said the administration's greatest fear is that economically troubled North Korea would try to sell the nuclear weapons material to rogue states or terrorists.
Korea specialist Gordon Flake said Mr. Armitage's comments, as well as statements by other U.S. officials, indicate the administration believes North Korea already has nuclear weapons.
"I am actually convinced that there has been somewhat of a consensus shift within the administration toward the conclusion that North Korea already is nuclear that North Korea already has nuclear weapons. So, it is not so much a matter of trying to prevent North Korea from acquiring these, but preventing them from producing more and from getting sufficient extra fissile material that they might feel comfortable in exporting it, rather than keeping it for their own defense," Mr. Flake said.
Mr. Flake, executive director of the Mansfield Center for Pacific Affairs in Washington, said the situation has moved beyond North Korea trying to get Washington to the negotiating table and wanting to be treated as an equal. He says North Korea's actions are now motivated by fear.
"If you are North Korea, and you have heard over the last year President Bush brand you a member of the axis of evil, President Bush say he loathes you, that he has no heart for you, and call Kim Jong Il a pygmy. You hear this new doctrine of American preemptive strikes, and you see this pace of events being Iraq first, then North Korea. They are clearly paranoid, and they are clearly feeling under the gun," he said.
Mr. Flake said North Korea is trying to quickly build up what he calls a "porcupine" defense. "To make themselves so prickly and difficult to deal with that they can preempt a U.S. preemptive strike, if you will. We may think that prospect is laughable from Washington, but from the North Korean perspective, it is very frightening," he said.
Joel Wit says North Korea wants to defend itself, but it may also seek international respect. Therefore, he said Pyongyang may not yet have decided to put its nuclear program into full operation.
"The North Koreans may not have decided themselves yet what their final steps will be. They may be constantly taking the temperature of the international community while they move forward with these preparations to restart their program. At some point soon, they may reach a point where they have to make a final decision," Mr. Wit said.
And Mr. Wit says North Korea will do whatever it thinks best serves its security interests and ensures the survival of the Pyongyang regime.