North Korea is restoring facilities at its Yongbyon nuclear reactor, the source of weapons-grade plutonium in the past, South Korea’s defense ministry said yesterday.
“North Korea is restoring nuclear facilities and continuing maintenance activities at Yongbyon,” a spokesman quoted Defense Minister Kim Tae-young as telling parliament on Monday. “It is engaged in new construction and large-scale excavation.”
The foreign ministry said the South is closely monitoring the work.
“There are some activities going on, but we have no information on what these are for,” spokesman Kim Young-sun said. “The government is watching closely the activities there and exchanging information with other countries.”
An unidentified government official was quoted by the Dong-A Ilbo newspaper as saying that two rectangular buildings were being built next to the site of a cooling tower demolished in 2008.
A private US research institute reported last week that new construction or excavation was under way at Yongbyon.
The Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS) said tracks made by heavy machinery, along with construction or excavation equipment, were visible in satellite photos.
ISIS said there appeared to be ongoing construction of two small buildings next to the former tower, which the North blew up in June 2008 in front of foreign media to dramatize its commitment to nuclear disarmament.
The institute said the purpose of the work is unclear, but bears watching.
The North’s current plutonium stockpile is believed to be enough for six to eight bombs.
North Korean Vice Foreign -Minister Pak Kil-yon told the UN last week his country must strengthen its nuclear deterrent in the face of what he called threats from the US.
The North shut down Yongbyon in July 2007 under a six-nation aid-for-disarmament accord. The following summer, it destroyed the tower.
However, six-party talks became bogged down in December 2008 over ways to verify the North’s denuclearization. In April last y ear, Pyongyang abandoned the talks and said it had resumed reprocessing spent fuel rods to make plutonium.
In May last year, it conducted an atomic weapons test, its second.
The North has indicated willingness in principle to return to the six-party forum chaired by its ally China. However, it says it wants separate talks with the US about signing a permanent peace treaty.
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