“North Korea said it restarted its main plant for producing nuclear bombs, backing experts’ assessments that satellite imagery shows the facility to have been at least partly active for about two years,” reports The Wall Street Journal.
Tuesday’s report from North Korea’s state media adds to concerns that the isolated nation is pressing ahead in sharpening its nuclear threat. A day earlier, Pyongyang indicated it may soon launch a long-range rocket. The U.S. and other countries view such launches as tests of missile technology that could potentially be used to deliver a nuclear bomb as far as the continental U.S.
The intelligence community has detected signs that operations at Yongbyon, which can both produce plutonium and enrich uranium, have not been running smoothly. It is an old facility that has been shut down and restarted numerous times over the years–“typically shut after the latest aid-for-disarmament deal with the U.S. and other countries and eventually restarted to give North Korea new leverage,” as the WSJ puts it.
CNN relates speculation from some analysts that North Korea might be cranking up Yongbyon more to freshen up and improve its existing nuclear stockpile than to construct new weapons. However, former U.N. weapons inspector David Albright produced a study earlier this year that predicted the North Koreans would try to increase their inventory from its current level of 10 to 15 nukes into an arsenal of 20 to 100 warheads by 2020–hardly the “de-nuclearization” desired by the international community, especially if Pyongyang also makes progress on inter-continental ballistic missiles that could reliably hit Europe and the United States.
As for the long-range missile test, the North Koreans claim it is a peaceful space launch, and their patrons in China seem inclined to support those claims, but the U.S. State Department says it would consider such a launch to be in violation of U.N. Security Council resolutions. What, exactly, that means is anyone’s guess. The administration has called on North Korea to give up on these “irresponsible provocations that aggravate regional tension,” and “focus instead on fulfilling its international obligations.” Maybe Pyongyang will end up getting a Strongly Worded Letter from the U.N.
“If the U.S. and other hostile forces persistently seek their reckless hostile policy towards the DPRK and behave mischievously, the DPRK is fully ready to cope with them with nuclear weapons any time,” snarled the director of the North Korean Atomic Energy Institute.
Every bit of news from North Korea must be viewed in the context of previous blood-curdling threats that turned out to be bluffs, or saber-rattling to draw attention to the regime. Dictator Kim Jong-un does not like being out of the spotlight while other global super-villains dominate the headlines. Much of North Korea’s “diplomacy” boils down to a protection racket that only works if the world community is convinced the psycho state is ready to start a war at the slightest provocation.
But if 99 percent of North Korea’s stories boil down to Kim shrieking, “Pay attention to me!” we must still be ready for the day when he isn’t bluffing. The situation along the DMZ came very close to a shooting war a few weeks ago, even though relations between North and South Korea have generally been seen as moving in a positive direction.
In response to this news, South Korean President Park Geun-hye joined with European Union leaders to condemn Pyongyang’s “continued development of its nuclear and ballistic missile programs,” urging them to dismantle their nuclear weapons program “in a complete, verifiable, and irreversible manner” and to “refrain from any further provocation,” according to CNN.