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N. Korea Plutonium Reactor Nears Restart, U.S. Monitor Says

North Korean Leader Kim Jong Un
This picture released by North Korea's official Korean Central News Agency on May 28, 2013 shows North Korean leader Kim Jong Un inspecting a fishery station. Source: KCNA via KNS/AFP via Getty Images

June 4 (Bloomberg) -- North Korea is nearly finished work needed to restart a mothballed nuclear reactor used to produce weapons-grade plutonium, according to a U.S. institute that monitors the totalitarian country.

Commercial satellite images show North Korea “is making important progress” at the Yongbyon site, the U.S.-Korea Institute at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies said yesterday in a report on its 38 North website. The 5-megawatt graphite-rod reactor “may be 1-2 months from start up but the availability of fresh fuel rods to power the reactor remains uncertain.”

Satellite photos taken as recently as May 22 show a new secondary cooling system for the reactor appears almost finished and two tanks next to the building housing spent fuel have been buried to ensure water is available to store used rods, according to the institute’s analysis.

South Korean Defense Ministry spokesman Kim Min Seok today told reporters in Seoul that the one-to-two month forecast for restarting the reactor was “a bit too early,” adding the military continued to monitor the Yongbyon site with help from the U.S.

Kim Jong Un’s regime announced in April it would restart the reactor, following threats it would carry out preemptive nuclear strikes on South Korea and the U.S. While those threats have moderated, North Korea has resisted pressure from China, its biggest ally, to return to nuclear disarmament talks.

Tensions on the Korean peninsula rose after Kim’s government defied United Nations sanctions with a rocket launch in December, then detonated an atomic bomb in February. The Obama administration has said that North Korea must pledge to abandon its nuclear ambitions as a condition to resuming six-nation talks that were abandoned in 2008.

To contact the reporter on this story: John Brinsley in Tokyo at jbrinsley@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Rosalind Mathieson at rmathieson3@bloomberg.net

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