SEOUL, South Korea – Pushing its nuclear weapons program forward, North Korea announced Wednesday that it had removed fuel rods from its main reactor in a key preparatory step for extracting weapons-grade plutonium.
North Korea also said it intended to resume construction on two nuclear reactors that were mothballed under a now defunct 1994 treaty with the United States.
“Necessary measures to bolster its nuclear arsenal” is how North Korea referred to the moves in a statement attributed to an unnamed Foreign Ministry official and carried over the official news service.
The defiant announcement from Pyongyang, the capital, is sure to add to an aura of crisis building around the North’s weapons program.
The 8,000 fuel rods that North Korea says it removed from a 5-megawatt reactor at its main nuclear compound in Yongbyon could produce enough plutonium for three nuclear bombs.
South Korea, which has otherwise reacted calmly to recent provocative moves by North Korea, expressed alarm Wednesday at the latest development.
“We express deep concern about the move as it is aggravating the situation,” spokesman Lee Kyu Hyung said.
A senior U.S. envoy, Christopher Hill, is expected to arrive here Friday in the latest in a series of so-far futile efforts to press North Korea to come back to talks on dismantling its nuclear program.
The removal of the fuel rods coincides with mounting fears that North Korea is preparing an underground nuclear test, which would essentially confirm what Pyongyang has been declaring since early this year: that it is now a nuclear power.
Daniel Pinkston, a specialist in North Korean weapons with the Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Monterey, Calif., said there is no way that satellite evidence can confirm the removal of the fuel rods, but that he has no reason to doubt the North Korean statement.
“Everything the North Koreans said they’re doing, it turns out they have in fact done. They’ve announced their moves at each step, unlike the Iranians, who deny everything,” said Pinkston.
He noted, however, that it would probably be at least six months before the North Koreans could start reprocessing to extract the plutonium because the rods will initially be too radioactive to handle.