North Korea Reportedly Restarts Nuclear Plant

By Hyung-Jin Kim | May 27, 2009 | 5:07 AM EDT
Seoul, South Korea (AP) - A strident North Korea has reportedly restarted a weapons-grade nuclear plant and staged a mass rally to celebrate its second nuclear test as world powers, including allies China and Russia, moved Wednesday to punish the isolated communist regime.
The North also announced that South Korea's decision to participate in an international program aimed at stemming the flow of weapons of mass destruction was equal to a "declaration of war."
Pyongyang said through its official news agency that it would respond with military action if the South tried to stop or search any of its ships. South Korea decided to join the program, known as the Proliferation Security Initiative, after Monday's nuclear test.
Earlier in the day, South Korea's mass-circulation Chosun Ilbo newspaper reported that U.S. spy planes detected signs of steam at the Yongbyon nuclear plant, an indication the facility may have started reprocessing nuclear fuel.
The report, which could not be confirmed, quoted an unnamed government official. South Korea's Yonhap news agency also had a similar report.
The move would be a major setback to efforts aimed at getting the North to disarm.
North Korea had stopped reprocessing fuel rods as part of an international deal. In 2007, it agreed to disable the Yongbyon reactor in exchange for aid and last year demolished a cooling tower at the complex.
The North has about 8,000 spent fuel rods which, if reprocessed, could allow the country to harvest 13 to 18 pounds (6 to 8 kilograms) of plutonium -- enough to make at least one nuclear bomb, experts said. North Korea is believed to have enough plutonium for at least half a dozen atomic bombs.
Further ratcheting up tensions, North Korea has test-fired five short-range missiles over the past two days, South Korean officials confirmed.
Pyongyang hinted that more could be planned, telling ships to stay away from waters off its west coast through Wednesday.
The North's moves have brought a wave of international reproach.
In New York, the U.N. Security Council was discussing a resolution that could include new sanctions.
Ambassadors from the five permanent veto-wielding council members -- the United States, Russia, China, Britain and France -- as well as Japan and South Korea were expected to meet again soon to work out the details.
Council members, after condemning the test on Monday, said they would follow up with a new legally binding resolution.
China and Russia, both close allies of North Korea, slammed Pyongyang for going ahead with the blast.
Russia, once a key backer of North Korea, condemned it and Moscow's U.N. ambassador, Vitaly Churkin, who is also the Security Council president, said the 15-member body would begin work "quickly" on a new resolution.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Ma Zhaoxu also said Beijing "resolutely opposed" the nuclear test. He urged Pyongyang to return to negotiations under which it had agreed to dismantle its atomic program.
Still, diplomats acknowledged that there were limits to the international response and that past sanctions have had only spotty results because North Korea is already one of the most isolated countries in the world.
Details of Monday's nuclear test may take days to confirm.
Russian defense officials said the blast was roughly as strong as the bombs dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in World War II and was stronger than North Korea's first test in 2006. Other experts said that was probably an overestimate, and put the blast closer in strength to the first test.
North Korea seemed unfazed by the condemnation.
Thousands of Pyongyang residents, including senior military and party officials, gathered Tuesday in a stadium to celebrate the successful nuclear test.
Choe Thae Bok, a high-ranking party official, was quoted by North Korea's official news agency as saying that the nuclear test "was a grand undertaking" to protect the country against "the U.S. imperialists' unabated threat to mount a preemptive nuclear attack and (put) sanctions and pressure upon it."
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