North Korea Seen Restarting Work on Nuclear Reactor

North Korea has restarted construction on a nuclear reactor that is an essential component in building nuclear weapons, according to a U.S. university monitoring project.

Commercial satellite imagery from April 30 shows that the Pyongyang government is close to completing a containment building for a new experimental light water reactor, according to a website maintained by Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies based in Washington.

The reactor, for possible completion by 2014-2015, would be able to supply needed electricity as well as fissile material for a nuclear weapon, the report says. It quoted a former deputy director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency, Olli Heinonen, as saying that once the reactor is operational, it would be capable of producing enough plutonium to add “a little more than one bomb per year” to North Korea’s nuclear weapons stockpile.

U.S.-led talks to curb North Korea’s nuclear program fell apart last month. The U.S. and South Korea have expressed concern that the North, under new leader Kim Jong Un, is preparing to test a nuclear explosive device soon.

North Korea issued several threats last month with officials talking of “powerful modern weapons” and threatening to reduce South Korea to “ashes” in minutes.

Diplomats to Meet

The construction of the experimental light water reactor, “which the North Koreans have indicated is the prototype for additional reactors, as well as a uranium enrichment facility at Yongbyon, is an important indication of the North’s intention to move forward with the expansion of its nuclear weapons stockpile in the future,” said a post today on the ‘38 North’ blog run by the U.S.-Korea Institute at SAIS.

The State Department would not comment on the report, in keeping with its policy of not commenting on intelligence matters.

South Korea’s chief nuclear envoy Lim Sung Nam plans to meet his U.S. and Japan counterparts in Seoul on May 21 to discuss affairs on the Korean peninsula following North Korea’s April 13 long-range rocket launch, a violation of United Nations resolutions. The U.S. delegation will be led by Special Representative for North Korea Policy Glyn Davies.

The U.S. canceled food assistance in response, leading the North Koreans to break off an agreement to halt testing of nuclear devices or long-range missiles. U.S. officials say that North Korea must comply with its commitments under the 2005 Joint Statement of the Six-Party Talks, which include South Korea, China, Russia and Japan.

Construction on the reactor resumed in late February or early March, the report said.

The combination of the reactor and enrichment plant could allow the North to continue expansion of its nuclear-weapons stockpile “well into the future,” according to the report.

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