SEOUL, South Korea (AP) – North Korea said yesterday it has reactivated its nuclear facilities, a surprise announcement that raised questions whether it was trying to take advantage of Washington’s preoccupation with Iraq to ratchet up pressure in its own standoff with the United States.
In Washington, the State Department said that if the announcement was true, “this would be a very serious development.” It demanded the North “reverse this action … North Korea must visibly, verifiably and irreversibly dismantle its nuclear weapons program.”
A North Korean spokesman announced the reactivation, deepening the crisis over Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions, just before Secretary of State Colin Powell spoke at the U.N. Security Council, presenting the U.S. case against Iraq.
The North said the reactivated facilities would “for the present stage” be used only to produce electricity – but the United States says the facilities can produce nuclear weapons within months.
Even as it presses toward war with Iraq over alleged hidden weapons of mass destruction, the United States has insisted it wants a peaceful solution in its standoff with North Korea.
President Bush “keeps all of his options open” but still believes the standoff can be resolved diplomatically, National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice said in an appearance on ABC’s “Nightline.”
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer discounted that Pyongyang was timing the issue with Iraq developments.
“North Korea has a history of doing things like they did in the ’90s, outside of the context of Iraq,” he said.
The North’s announcement came hours after South Korea opened a road across the heavily fortified border for the first time in more than half a century, trying to ease tensions with the isolated communist regime.
Pyongyang wants direct talks with Washington. Analysts say North Korea, which often accuses the United States of plotting to invade it, fears Washington will turn up pressure on it if a war against Iraq is successful.
The North may hope that heightening the standoff at a time when Washington is trying to concentrate on Iraq could prompt the United States to make concessions.
The Pentagon is considering bolstering U.S. forces in the region to deter the North from any provocations during an Iraq war. Washington says it has no plans to invade North Korea.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld called North Korea “a terrorist regime” and said restarting the nuclear program would give the North a troubling option – making nuclear weapons for itself or selling them to any other country.
The United States is pressing for the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency to refer the issue to the Security Council – which would likely impose punitive sanctions on the North. Pyongyang vehemently opposes such a move.
At the International Atomic Energy Agency, spokeswoman Melissa Fleming had no immediate comment on the report from the North.