Activity Seen at N. Korean Nuclear Plant

Times Staff Writer

U.S. sources confirmed Friday that there is activity at a North Korean plutonium reprocessing plant that could be used to make nuclear weapons, but they said it was not clear that reprocessing had begun.

“Sure, there’s buzzing in and around the plant,” said a well-informed source, who added: “That’s been detected for some time, and we haven’t seen any spike in that activity.”

U.S. officials said they could not say what kind of activity had been detected around the plant because of the need to protect intelligence sources and methods.

This week, North Korea tested what appeared to be a short-range cruise missile and restarted its 5-megawatt nuclear research reactor. The developments have convinced many observers that Pyongyang is not necessarily interested in negotiating and is determined to get plutonium that could be used for nuclear weapons.


“It’s just a matter of time,” said L. Gordon Flake, an expert on North Korea and head of the Mansfield Center for Pacific Affairs in Washington, who predicted that the reprocessing plant might begin operating as early as next week. “I am operating under the presumption that they will reprocess, and will test another missile, and will eventually declare themselves a nuclear weapons state.”

Anxieties soared Friday on both sides of the Pacific amid reports that North Korea appeared to be moving toward restarting the reprocessing plant. South Korea’s newly named unification minister lamented that the government of President Roh Moo Hyun, who was inaugurated Tuesday, “is in hot water from the beginning.”

Japanese newspapers reported that North Korea was preparing to conduct a test of its long-range ballistic missiles and that it had attempted a test of its Taepodong missile back in January. One U.S. official said those reports were “not entirely accurate.” Another source said the Japanese “were hysterical about some nonexistent missile test.”

Pyongyang Lays Blame

North Korea’s official news agency blamed the United States for triggering the crisis by cutting off fuel shipments last year and said the situation “is growing tenser with each passing day.”

With its usual invective, the official Workers’ Party newspaper, Rodong Shinmun, called Bush administration officials “political imbeciles” who were distorting North Korea’s position. The newspaper said North Korea had withdrawn from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty “to defend the supreme interests and sovereignty of the country.” It heaped scorn on the U.S. for suggesting that its actions were aimed at extracting economic concessions.

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said at the conclusion of his trip to Asia this week that any move by Pyongyang to restart the reprocessing plant would “change the political landscape” in Asia.

Though he stopped short of saying that reprocessing would trigger military or other retaliation by the United States, Powell made clear that it would carry serious consequences. U.S. officials have declined to spell out what those consequences might be.


Asked Friday whether the U.S. would respond if reprocessing began, a senior administration official would say only: “We will.”

Japan and China have each proposed formulas for a framework of multilateral talks within which the United States would agree to negotiate directly with the North Koreans, Powell said.

France has proposed that the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council meet soon to discuss the North Korean situation. A U.S. official said those talks will occur, perhaps as early as next week.

Thus, though the crisis with North Korea appeared Friday to be entering a new phase, it remained difficult to assess North Korea’s intentions and the Bush administration’s strategy.


Some analysts think the administration hopes that North Korea will either capitulate or collapse before it succeeds in producing more nuclear weapons. The U.S. estimates that North Korea already has perhaps two nuclear bombs. Administration officials insist they are working diligently to try to find a diplomatic solution.

Actions Unclear

Officials with the International Atomic Energy Agency have said they cannot determine for certain what is taking place at the site in Yongbyon that houses both the 5-megawatt reactor and the reprocessing plant, now that North Korea has expelled agency monitors and removed observation cameras.

U.S. intelligence sources have previously cited truck movements around the plant that raised suspicions that the North Koreans had uncapped the spent plutonium fuel rods that had been stored at the site since they agreed to freeze their nuclear program in 1994.


Commercial satellite photographs posted last month on the Web site of, a nonpartisan research organization, appeared to show that North Korea had fired up a coal-fueled steam plant that could heat a solvent used to separate plutonium from spent fuel rods. The photos appeared to show first that a leak in the pipes carrying steam to the reprocessing plant had been repaired and then that the coal-fired plant was shut down. Flake said there had been no follow-up reports about the status of those fuel rods.

“U.S. intelligence analysts admitted it. Then nothing,” he said. “There has been to my knowledge no further U.S. government acknowledgment of the status of those rods. It’s just become a presumption that they’ve moved to the next stage of the program” to reprocess the plutonium.

North Korea announced last year that it intended to restart the research reactor in order to supply electricity to the energy-starved country. U.S.-funded deliveries of heavy fuel oil ended in December after North Korea’s admission that it had a secret program to enrich uranium.

The tiny reactor produces only a trickle of electricity. Within about six months, however, it will have used a fuel rod that, if reprocessed, would probably produce enough plutonium for one nuclear weapon. By restarting the reprocessing plant and using the fuel rods known to be stored at Yongbyon, North Korea could probably produce enough plutonium for six weapons within six months, experts say.


“They may be determined to go ahead and reprocess the plutonium whatever we do,” said Robert J. Einhorn, who conducted extensive negotiations with the North Koreans throughout the Clinton administration. “I’d put that likelihood at greater than 50-50. But it’s important for us to test whether they are willing to suspend reprocessing by having a workable [diplomatic] formula.”

Einhorn has proposed a face-saving solution whereby North Korea would agree to freeze all nuclear activities while talks were underway, while the United States would promise not to attack Yongbyon or support U.N. sanctions against North Korea as long as seals on the plutonium fuel rods remained in place. Einhorn said there had been no indication that the administration was interested in the proposal.


Times staff writer Paul Richter contributed to this report.