U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said it would be a “serious step” if North Korea violates its obligations by following through on a threat to restart nuclear facilities shut by a 2007 disarmament accord.
The U.S. is committed to defending itself and its allies and “will not be subject to irrational or reckless provocation” by North Korea, Kerry said yesterday after meeting in Washington with South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung Se.
“If they restart their nuclear facility at Yongbyon, that is in direct violation of their international obligations,” Kerry said. “It would be a provocative act.”
North Korea said yesterday it will restart facilities at its Yongbyon nuclear site, in the latest sign its leader Kim Jong Un appears intent on expanding his atomic weapons program in defiance of international censure.
Dealing with North Korea will be a top concern when Kerry visits China, South Korea and Japan this month on his first trip to Asia as the top U.S. diplomat.
The Korean Central News Agency, citing a spokesman for the General Department of Atomic Energy, said a uranium enrichment plant and a 5-megawatt graphite-rod reactor will resume operations and North Korea’s leadership will pursue the twin goals of economic and nuclear development.
The Yongbyon reactor, which generates spent plutonium fuel rods, was closed six years ago as part of a deal with the U.S., South Korea, China, Russia and Japan to end North Korea’s nuclear ambitions in exchange for energy aid.
Those six-nation talks to dissuade the totalitarian regime from developing atomic weapons and testing missiles failed and haven’t been held since 2008.
“The bottom line is very simply that what Kim Jong Un has been choosing to do is provocative, it is dangerous, reckless, and the United States will not accept the DPRK as a nuclear state,” Kerry said.
Kerry and Yun both said yesterday that talks with North Korea can resume if Kim’s regime renounces nuclear ambitions and lives up to international obligations.
“Secretary Kerry and I agreed that North Korea should abandon its nuclear ambitions and bellicose rhetoric,” Yun said. “If North Korea decides to give up its nuclear ambitions and to become a member of the international community, we are prepared to resume our talks in terms of putting in place a peace process on the Korean peninsula.”
White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters yesterday that North Korea’s statement on the Yongbyon site is “another indication of its pattern of contradicting its own commitments and its pattern of violating its international obligations.”
The Yongbyon announcement follows statements by Kim that his country is in a state of war with South Korea and may launch pre-emptive nuclear strikes against the U.S., which North Korea has yet to prove it can do.
South Korea’s benchmark Kospi index fell 0.5 percent yesterday to close at 1,986.15. The won fell 0.3 percent to 1,117.98 per dollar.
Army General James Thurman, the U.S. commander for Korea, said in an interview with ABC News that “tough talk” from Kim probably represents an attempt “to play to his internal audience.” Still, Thurman said, the situation on the Korean peninsula is “volatile” and “dangerous.”
Two Navy destroyers have been sent to the western Pacific to respond to missile threats, Pentagon spokesman George Little said yesterday.
The USS Decatur and the USS John S. McCain “will be poised to respond to any missile threats to our allies or our territory,” Little said at a Pentagon news conference.
The ships, equipped with guided missiles, aren’t stationed off the North Korean coast, Little said, while declining to specify their locations.
“We regularly conduct missile-defense missions, sea-based and land-based, in the Asia-Pacific region,” Little said. “That’s for obvious reasons. And we will continue to perform these missions regardless of what tensions there may or may not be at a given time.”
United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon yesterday called for “dialogue and negotiations” to ease tensions, saying “the current crisis has already gone too far.”
“Nuclear threats are not a game,” Ban, who is from South Korea, told reporters at a news conference in Andorra. “Aggressive rhetoric and military posturing only result in counter-actions and fuel fear and instability.”
North Korea has 24 to 42 kilograms of plutonium from the Yongbyon reactor, enough to produce four to eight nuclear bombs, according to estimates from Stanford University physicist Siegfried Hecker, who visited the facilities in 2010.
It will take North Korea from six months to a year to resume operations at Yongbyon, said Ham Hyeong Pil, a research fellow at the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses in Seoul.
Japan criticized North Korea’s announcement, as did China, its biggest trading partner and ally.
“We have noticed the remarks of the DPRK and express our regrets,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said in Beijing, using the acronym for North Korea’s official name. “We call on relevant parties to keep calm and exercise restraint.”
Since inheriting his position after his father Kim Jong Il’s death in December 2011, Kim has rebuffed international aid in favor of preserving a military-first policy to secure his legitimacy. His regime detonated an atomic weapon in February in defiance of tightening UN sanctions, and said U.S.-South Korean military drills are a rehearsal for a nuclear attack against North Korea.
South Korean Defense Ministry spokesman Kim Min Seok said yesterday there are no signs of an impending missile attack, declining to confirm whether any activity has been detected at launch sites.
While North Korea has said it may shut the jointly run Gaeseong industrial zone in response to recent flights over the Korean peninsula by U.S. stealth bombers, South Korean workers have continued to cross the border into the area, 150 of them yesterday, the Unification Ministry said.
South Korea President Park Geun Hye told officials yesterday the situation is grave and emphasized the need for strong diplomatic and military deterrence, her spokesman, Yoon Chang Jung, said in a statement on the presidential website.
To contact the reporters on this story: Flavia Krause-Jackson in Washington at email@example.com; Sangwon Yoon in Seoul at firstname.lastname@example.org
To contact the editor responsible for this story: John Walcott at email@example.com