U.S. officials say North Korea has apparently restarted a reactor at its Yongbyon nuclear complex. The State Department says the move, reported by U.S. intelligence sources, is the latest in a series of "provocative actions" by North Korea that challenge the international community.
Officials here say the North Korean action was not unexpected, since Pyongyang had already re-opened the Yongbyon complex and expelled international monitors from the site.
But they say it is a serious move, and would become more so if it is followed by action, not observed by U.S. intelligence thus far, to begin reprocessing spent reactor fuel into weapons-grade material.
North Korea has taken a series of steps in violation of international nuclear undertakings since last October when it acknowledged to a senior U.S. envoy that it had a secret uranium-enrichment program despite the 1994 deal with the United States that ostensibly froze its nuclear program.
With U.S. support, the international consortium administering the accord halted fuel oil shipments to North Korea in November, and Pyongyang says it has had to restart the nuclear sites to generate power.
But U.S. officials say the reactor being restarted at Yongbyon, rated at five megawatts, is too small to produce much electricity, and that they are "confident" the move is in support of a weapons program.
U.S. experts have said North Korea may have one of two nuclear weapons dating from before the 1994 framework, and could produce several more if began reprocessing reactor fuel.
North Korea has been demanding direct talks, and a non-aggression treaty, with the United States as a price for negotiations on its nuclear moves.
But the Bush administration has said Pyongyang should get no reward for violating its international commitments, and that talks on the matter should be multilateral, since the issue also affects other regional players including China, Russia, Japan and South Korea.
A spokesman here called the re-start of the Yongbyon reactor "another in a series of provocative actions" North Korea has undertaken to challenge the international community, which he said is "united" in seeking a nuclear weapons-free Korean peninsula.
He said North Korea must "visibly, verifiably and irreversibly" dismantle its nuclear program and come into compliance with its international obligations.
The development follows by just a day the return of Secretary of State Colin Powell from a five-day mission to the region for consultations on North Korea climaxed by a stop in Seoul for a meeting with South Korea's newly-inaugurated president, Roh Moo-hyun.