N Korea escalates its nuclear posture

TIMES NEWS NETWORK -- 27 February 2003

HONG KONG: North Korea has further escalated its brinkmanship with the United States by reactivating a research reactor, which had been inoperative since 1994. The provocative move comes less than 24 hours after Secretary of State Colin Powell had told reporters, as he flew back from his East Asian tour, that North Korea had neither reactivated the reactor nor started reprocessing the 8,000 spent fuel roads in its possession. "That's a wise choice if it’s a conscious choice" Powell said.

But in Washington DC top administration officials have revealed that late Tuesday North Korea had chosen to start up its five megawatt experimental nuclear reactor at Yongbyon, for the first time since the reactor's operation was frozen under an agreement with the Clinton Administration.

"I think this is another example of the North Korean regime taking escalatory actions in order to gain concessions," US National Security Council spokesman Sean McCormack said, "With each step it takes to advance its nuclear capability, North Korea further isolates itself from the international community".

The North Korean move is the least provocative escalation currently open to it. The small reactor will only produce a small amount of spent fuel capable of being reprocessed into weapon's grade plutonium. It would take a year or more for the reactor to produce enough spent fuel for reprocessing into the plutonium used in making a nuclear bomb.

While the North Koreans are once again justifying this move as being necessary for producing electricity, there is no validity in this claim. The 5-megawatt reactor is designed for research purposes not electricity production. It is far too small to have any impact on North Korea's congenital power shortage.

The most provocative move would be for North Korea to restart the radiochemistry laboratory, also at Yongbyon, which can reprocess those 8,000 spent fuel rods (previously under the care of IAEA inspectors who have now been expelled) into weapons grade plutonium. It is estimated that it would only take a month or two for the North Koreans to produce enough plutonium for five or six bombs.

Another possible North Korean escalation would be to recommence long-range ballistic missile tests into the Pacific through Japanese airspace in the same way as they did in 1998.

The short range ground-to-sea missile tested in the Sea of Japan just before the new South Korean President was sworn on Tuesday was symbolic but not provocative, though it was widely and wrongly reported as such.

The North Koreans had informed all the relevant authorities that the test was about to take place, including the Japanese Coast Guard.