UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon yesterday warned that the Korean Peninsula crisis could spiral out of control, after North Korea announced it would restart a nuclear reactor to feed its atomic weapons program.
“Nuclear threats are not a game,” Ban said, responding to a series of aggressive statements by Pyongyang that have prompted the deployment of nuclear-capable US B-52s, B-2 stealth bombers and a US destroyer to South Korea.
The North’s announcement earlier in the day that it would reopen Yongbyon reactor — its source of weapons-grade plutonium — triggered international alarm, with China voicing regret and calling for restraint.
The Korean Peninsula has been caught in a cycle of escalating tensions since the North’s nuclear test in February, which followed a long-range rocket launch in December last year.
Subsequent UN sanctions and annual South Korea-US military exercises have been used by Pyongyang to justify a wave of increasingly dire threats against Seoul and Washington, including warnings of missile strikes and nuclear war.
Ban called for calm.
“The current crisis has already gone too far,” the former South Korean foreign minister told a press conference in Andorra.
“Things must begin to calm down,” he said, adding that negotiations were the only viable way forward.
Ban also said he feared an escalation in the crisis.
“I’m convinced that nobody intends to attack the DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] because of a disagreement about its nuclear system ... however, I’m afraid that others will respond firmly to any military provocation,” he said.
A Pyongyang nuclear energy spokesman said the plans for Yongbyon would involve “readjusting and restarting” all facilities at the nuclear complex, including a uranium enrichment plant and the five-megawatt reactor.
The aim was to “bolster the nuclear armed force both in quality and quantity,” the spokesman was quoted as saying by the official KCNA news agency.
The North shut down the Yongbyon reactor in July 2007 under a six-nation aid-for-disarmament accord, and destroyed its cooling tower a year later.
Experts say it would take six months to get the reactor back up and running, after which it would be able to produce one bomb’s worth of weapons-grade plutonium a year.
Kim Yong-hyun, a North Korea expert at Seoul’s Dongguk University, said yesterday’s nuclear initiative was in a different league from the military bluster of recent weeks.
“This goes beyond mere provocation. It’s a strong, tangible move and perhaps the one that will force the US into the direct dialogue Pyongyang wants,” he said.