SEOUL -- Thumbing its nose again at the international community, North Korea announced Tuesday that it would restart a nuclear reactor that was closed in 2007 under a six-nation disarmament agreement.
Although Pyongyang claimed in the past that the reactor's purpose was to generate electricity, this time the regime declared outright it would also be "bolstering up the nuclear armed force both in quantity and in quality."
"I have to say this is one of the most dangerous moments since 1953," said Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Beijing’s Renmin University, referring to the end of the Korean War.
North Korea’s sole nuclear reactor, located in the Soviet-era Yongbyon nuclear complex 55 miles north of Pyongyang, was mothballed in October 2007, when a disarmament deal was hammered out with the U.S., China, Japan, South Korea and Russia. At the time, North Korea theatrically blew up the cooling tower in front of television cameras to show its sincerity.
The plutonium used in two previous nuclear tests, in 2006 and 2009, was extracted from spent fuel rods from the Yongbyon plant. It is not clear whether the most recent nuclear test in February used plutonium or uranium. In any case, North Korea’s announcement Tuesday, quoting a spokesman for the General Department of Atomic Energy, said a uranium enrichment plant was among the facilities to be restarted.
"North Korea is putting into practice what they said earlier -- that they would strengthen the economy and the nuclear program," said Dr. Park Syung-je, an analyst with the Seoul-based Asia Strategy Institute. "North Korea has led the rest of the world on with lies, saying that nuclear power generation is their top priority. However, with such an announcement, North Korea has proven themselves that nuclear development was their actual priority."
Angered over U.N. sanctions resulting from its last nuclear test, North Korea has been spewing fresh threats almost every day in recent weeks.
It vowed to attack the U.S. and its military bases in Asia with nuclear weapons, canceled its 1953 armistice with South Korea, and over the weekend declared itself to be in a "state of war." It is also the leading suspect behind a crippling cyberattack on South Korea last month.
Although brinkmanship and blusters are hallmarks of Pyongyang’s negotiating strategy, this time experts are more alarmed because of the inexperience of 30-year-old leader Kim Jong Un, who took over after the death of his father, Kim Jong Il, in December 2011.
"Kim Jong Il, for all his faults, turned out to be very savvy about just how far he could go. He was very good at keeping North Korea in the position of public enemy No. 2," said Scott Snyder, an analyst at the Council on Foreign Relations. "I’m not sure Kim Jong Un has that sense. He is on the verge of becoming public enemy No. 1, and that could be a fatal mistake."
Snyder said he did not believe North Korea intends to start a war.
"The risk is really related to miscalculation," he said.
The U.S. Navy is moving a sea-based radar platform closer to North Korea to track possible missile launches, a Pentagon official said Monday, in the latest step meant to deter the North and reassure South Korea and Japan that the U.S. is committed to their defense.
The Chinese, ordinarily the closest allies of the Communist state, have supported the U.N. Security Council measures against North Korea and are clearly frustrated.
Last week, Deng Yuwen, an editor at the Party School, Beijing’s top institute for training Communist cadres, was suspended from his duties for writing in an editorial in the Financial Times that China should abandon its alliance. But the thought has been widely expressed among Chinese foreign policy experts.
"Kim Jong Un is ignoring China. I don’t agree China should abandon North Korea. The relationship is fluctuating, and now it is at is lowest ebb," said Chinese expert Shi.
Also on Tuesday, top envoys to six-party talks, South Korea's Lim Sung-nam and the U.S. special representative for North Korea policy, Glyn T. Davies, met in Washington to discuss the tension in the Korean peninsula.
South Korea's foreign ministry expressed "deep regrets" over North Korea's announcement to restart the nuclear facilities, and urged its neighbor "to fully abide by agreements reached to ensure denuclearization of the Korean peninsula."
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Times staff writer Barbara Demick and Nicole Liu of the Times’ Beijing bureau contributed to this report.