SEOUL, South Korea (AP) – North Korea said Tuesday it was restarting its rogue nuclear program, booting U.N. inspectors and pulling out of disarmament talks in an angry reaction to U.N. Security Council condemnation of its April 5 rocket launch.
Pyongyang ordered U.N. nuclear inspectors to remove seals and cameras from its Yongbyon nuclear site and leave the country as quickly as possible, the International Atomic Energy Agency said.
North Korea told the IAEA it was “immediately ceasing all cooperation” and “has decided to reactivate all facilities and go ahead with the reprocessing of spent fuel,” according to a statement from the U.N. agency.
White House spokesman Robert Gibbs condemned the decision, saying the international community will not accept North Korea until it abandons what Washington calls its pursuit of nuclear weapons. The North must “cease its provocative threats,” he said.
Russia also deplored the move and urged its neighbor to rejoin six-nation talks, which have been held since 2003 in an attempt to get Pyongyang to give up its nuclear program in exchange for aid and other concessions. Britain’s Foreign Office said the break with the IAEA was “completely unjustified.”
China – Pyongyang’s main ally and the host of the talks – called for calm on all sides.
Despite its defiance, analysts say North Korea, one of the poorest countries in the world, is unlikely to abandon the talks altogether. They suggested North Korea could be trying to draw the United States into direct negotiations, which it has long sought.
Hajime Izumi, a North Korea expert at the University of Shizuoka in Japan, said the North Korean reaction was designed to “bring the United States to the negotiating table and squeeze maximum concessions from it.”
All 15 members of the Security Council, including China and Russia, agreed Monday to condemn the April 5 launch as a violation of U.N. resolutions and to tighten sanctions against the regime. The U.N. statement was weaker than the resolution Japan and the United States had pursued.
North Korea claims it launched a communications satellite as part of a peaceful bid to develop its space program as Kim Jong Il embarked on his third term as leader. The U.S. and others call the launch an illicit test of the technology used to fire an intercontinental ballistic missile, even one eventually destined for the U.S.
A Security Council resolution passed in 2006, days after North Korea carried out an underground nuclear test, prohibits Pyongyang from engaging in any ballistic missile-related activity – including launching rockets that use the same delivery technology as missiles mounted with warheads, Washington and other nations say.
Under a 2007 six-party deal, North Korea agreed to disable its main nuclear complex in Yongbyon north of Pyongyang in return for 1 million tons of fuel oil and other concessions. In June 2008, North Korea famously blew up the cooling tower at Yongbyon in a dramatic show of its commitment to denuclearization.
But disablement came to halt a month later as Pyongyang wrangled with Washington over how to verify its 18,000-page account of past atomic activities. The latest round of talks, in December, failed to push the process forward.
On Tuesday, North Korea said it would restart nuclear facilities, an apparent reference to its plutonium-producing reactor at Yongbyon. North Korea already is believed to have enough plutonium to produce at least a half dozen atomic bombs.
But David Albright, whose Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security tracks suspected secret proliferators, said restarting a reactor isn’t so simple, and kicking out the inspectors could be posturing.
“Worse things have happened. It’s the easiest thing North Korea can do to express its anger,” he said.
“You can’t just turn on a reactor in a couple weeks. They could test a nuclear device, but it would be such an escalation that the parties-that-be internationally would have to respond negatively. Kicking out the monitors is something that easily can be reversed and not cause that much harm.”
He said it would take fuel-deficient North Korea six months to a year to restart the reactor.
Nuclear expert Whang Joo-ho of Kyung Hee University in South Korea estimated it could take even longer to get Yongbyon’s reactor and reprocessing facilities running again. He described the Soviet-designed reactor as “functionally outdated,” saying it may not even pose a security threat if fully restored.
However, the threats could be enough to get President Barack Obama’s attention, especially with two American reporters – Euna Lee and Laura Ling of Current TV – still in North Korean custody since last month. Pyongyang has threatened to put them on trial for illegal entry and “hostile acts.”