WASHINGTON - North Korea's restart of a plutonium reactor could strengthen not just its nuclear weapons program but its negotiating position if aid-for-disarmament talks resume, a top U.S. expert says.
But Siegfried Hecker, a scientist who has previously been granted unusual access to North Korea's nuclear facilities, says that by putting the five-megawatt reactor at the Nyongbyon nuclear complex back into action after disabling it in 2007, the North has complicated any future talks immensely.
"Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula must remain the goal, but it is a more distant one following these new developments," Hecker writes in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, citing recent satellite imagery indicating the reactor has restarted.
North Korea conducted a long-range rocket launch last December and a nuclear test explosion in February, signalling technical progress toward having a nuclear-tipped missile that could target America. After threatening pre-emptive strikes, the North has toned down its threats and called for a resumption of six-nation nuclear talks with China, Japan, Russia, South Korea, and the U.S. The North withdrew from those talks five years ago.
Pyongyang wants to negotiate without preconditions, but there's little prospect of fresh talks soon. Washington is demanding concrete steps first by the North to show it is willing to denuclearize. North Korea says that because of a "hostile" U.S. policy, it needs nuclear weapons to deter aggression by American forces based in South Korea.
Hecker and colleagues from Stanford University are believed to have been the last foreigners to visit Nyongbyon in November 2010. At that time, North Korea revealed to them a uranium enrichment workshop, showing that the reclusive nation has a second way to produce fissile material for bombs.
Little is yet known about the uranium program, but the reactor restart showed North Korea is "keeping the plutonium-bomb option alive," Hecker said. The most likely scenario is that the North would operate it for two years and then extract plutonium a year later — a cycle they could repeat multiple times, he said.
"We can expect Pyongyang to gain one bomb's worth of plutonium per year as long as it stays on this path. Such a production rate does not constitute a game changer, but it would give North Korea more plutonium to test in order to refine its nuclear devices to fit on its missiles," Hecker said.
He said the reactor restart also gives the government of Kim Jong Un more to bargain with, but complicates future talks, as negotiators would have to deal with what to do with 8,000 spent fuel rods.
Diplomatic overtures by North Korean officials in informal talks with U.S. experts in recent weeks have prompted calls by some for a fresh effort at formal engagement with the North in the hope of at least slowing its nuclear development.
But there's little enthusiasm for that in Washington, as previous disarmament agreements have collapsed amid acrimony. The Obama administration has focused its recent diplomatic efforts on urging China, which wants negotiations to restart, to increase pressure on North Korea and share the U.S. position on six-party talks.
In a paper published Thursday, Evans Revere, a former State Department official, called for a tougher U.S. policy that would leave the door open to credible negotiations, but increase the costs to North Korea of its current stance, so it faces "a stark choice between nuclear weapons and economic survival."
He advocated an intensification and expansion of sanctions and non-proliferation efforts.
"The United States should recognize that the current North Korean regime has no intention to denuclearize," Revere said.
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