BEIJING – In a challenge to the Bush administration, North Korea is taking the first steps toward reassembling the nuclear reactor it had been dismantling as part of a now-tattered agreement to denuclearize.
South Korean and U.S. officials reported Wednesday that, in the past 48 hours, international monitors had observed North Koreans taking mothballed equipment out of storage at Yongbyon, a nuclear compound 55 miles north of Pyongyang.
North Korea suspended the dismantling process Aug. 14, saying that the United States had broken a promise to remove it from the State Department’s list of terrorism-sponsoring nations.
Restarting the reactor, which is the only source of plutonium for the communist regime’s weapons program, would take at least one year and a considerable investment.
U.S. officials said Wednesday it was not clear how serious an effort North Korea was making to rebuild what it had dismantled.
“Our understanding is that the North Koreans are moving some equipment around that they had previously put into storage,” State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said at a briefing Wednesday.
White House press secretary Dana Perino said that President Bush still hoped to remove North Korea from the terrorism list but that he would not do so until North Korea allowed inspectors to verify information it provided as part of the deal to detail its nuclear inventory.
“Once North Korea simply agrees to a verification protocol, then the United States would take them off of our State Sponsors of Terrorism list,” she said. “But we’re not going to do it without it.”
This latest development is a setback to Bush’s hopes of claiming as part of his legacy the removal of the nuclear threat from North Korea – one of the nations he labeled as part of an “axis of evil,” along with Iran and Iraq.
South Korea’s chief nuclear negotiator, Kim Sook, said earlier this week that North Korea most likely was trying to exact further concessions from the United States.
“We need not overreact,” said Kim, speaking at a seminar Monday in Seoul. “They are trying to pressure the United States and other parties to back down rather than engage. The North should realize that verification is a core element” of the deal.
To longtime North Korea observers, the move is a typical tactic from Pyongyang, entirely predictable under the circumstances.
“It is par for the course. There is nothing terribly surprising about this,” said Scott Snyder, a Washington-based expert at the Asian Foundation who wrote a book about North Korea’s negotiating behavior.
“They are betting that this is a legacy issue for President Bush and that he will back down.”