North Korea To Restart Main Nuclear Complex After Weeks Of Escalating Threats

North Korea says it will restart a nuclear reactor that it shut down six years ago. Pyongyang said it needs to resolve an acute electricity shortage, as well as bolster what it called its nuclear armed force. The move is a further escalation of tension on the Korean peninsula after a series of North Korean threats.

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The United Nations chief, Ban Ki-moon, fears North Korea is on a collision course with the international community. He's urging dialogue and negotiation in response to the North's announcement that it plans to restart its main nuclear complex. This comes after weeks of escalating threats, including warnings of nuclear strikes against South Korea and the U.S., as NPR's Louisa Lim reports.

LOUISA LIM, BYLINE: Ever the expert at raising the stakes, Pyongyang's upped the ante even further. It's announced it's restarting its mothballed nuclear complex at Yongbyon to produce electricity and nuclear weapons.

CHO TAI-YOUNG: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: If the report is true, it's very regrettable, says Cho Tai-young, a South Korean foreign ministry spokesman. Pyongyang closed the complex six years ago. Then, experts believed it was producing enough plutonium for one bomb a year. Since then, Pyongyang's also admitted to a uranium enrichment program.

(SOUNDBITE OF EXPLOSION)

LIM: In 2008, Yongbyon's cooling tower was destroyed in an explosion witnessed by international media. But Mark Fitzpatrick, a nonproliferation expert at The International Institute of Strategic Studies in London, says this can be fixed.

MARK FITZPATRICK: They could restore a cooling system probably within several months, but there are other aspects of the startup that would take some time. They would have to prepare fuel for loading into the reactor. All in all, it would probably take at least six months to resume operations.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: A ruling party meeting on Sunday ended with the statement that nuclear weapons are a treasure and the nation's life. The new dual strategy is to keep nuclear arms at the same time as making economic development a top priority. One interesting move has been the return of Premiere Pak Pong-ju, who was sacked reportedly for backing Chinese-style reforms. But Daniel Pinkston from the International Crisis Group in Seoul warns against expecting major changes.

DANIEL PINKSTON: Bringing Pak Pong-ju back signals the regime's effort or desire to focus on the economy. The economic problems they face are serious, and they know they must address those problems. But it's within the constraints of the system. It's to make the system work better, not to revamp or create a new type of liberal economic system.

LIM: North Korea's leader, Kim Jong Un, argues nuclear weapons act as a deterrent by underpinning the peace that would allow the country to focus on rebuilding its economy. But Mark Fitzpatrick says that's a false argument.

FITZPATRICK: If they really want to have economic development, the nuclear program is an impediment to that because it impedes any form of Western investment or trade or the kind of relations between North and South Korea that could really help to spark the economy.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: Pyongyang's bluster has become a familiar sound in recent weeks. It's torn up the armistice that ended the Korean War and threatened nuclear strikes on South Korea and the U.S. Pyongyang wants talks with the U.S. So far, that's not an option. Instead, the U.S. has moved a warship to waters off the Korean Peninsula and is warning of further isolation. Leonid Petrov, a North Korea expert at the Australian National University, says that actually helps the North Korean leader.

DR. LEONID PETROV: Such regimes can survive only under two circumstances: in isolation and in a situation of perpetual crisis. And this is what Kim Jong Un is effectively achieving.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (Foreign language spoken)

LIM: North Korean television today featured troops shooting at paper targets of U.S. soldiers. But U.S. policy itself is beginning to come under fire at home. Given the threat level, there's a growing chorus of voices questioning the wisdom of the U.S. policy of strategic patience. Louisa Lim, NPR News, Beijing.

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