North Korea plans to restart a mothballed nuclear
reactor, which would allow it to resume production of weapons-grade
plutonium, state media said Tuesday.
The latest in a near-daily series of nuclear and military threats issued from Pyongyang provoked aggravation from the isolated regime's main diplomatic ally, Beijing, and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.
China expressed "regret" at Pyongyang's announcement, and Ban called for North Korea to lower its high-pitch, aggressive rhetoric because it might invite a "firm response."
The rising tensions on the Korean Peninsula have "gone too far" and could lead to open conflict, Ban said after the official Korean Central News Agency reported the 5-megawatt reactor in the north-western city of Yongbyon would be refurbished and restarted "without delay."
North Korea closed Yongyon in 2007 as part of six-nation talks in which it agreed to disarm in return for aid. It blew up the plant's cooling tower the following year.
"Nuclear threats are not a game," Ban warned on a visit to Andorra. "Aggressive rhetoric and military posturing only result in counteractions and fuel fear and instability."
Ban said that while he believes no country intended to attack North Korea, "I am afraid that others will respond firmly to any direct military provocation."
"Things must calm down," he said, adding that talks were the only way to resolve the crisis. He offered to help establish a dialogue.
In Beijing, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei called the situation on the Korean Peninsula "sensitive and complicated."
"We appeal to relevant parties to remain calm and exercise restraint, return to the track of dialogue and consultation as soon as possible, and jointly seek ways to resolve the issue," Hong said.
Tensions have risen since North Korea conducted its third nuclear test in February and the United Nations reacted by tightening sanctions on one of the most highly sanctioned countries in the world.
Yongbyon had a stockpile of an estimated 8,000 spent fuel rods in 2009, according to South Korea's Yonhap News Agency. North Korea is thought to have used plutonium from the facility for nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009.
Its third test is thought to have used uranium, according to some experts.
Pyongyang said Tuesday that it would also be restarting a uranium-enrichment plant at Yongbyon, which it revealed in 2010.
Both uranium and plutonium can be used to produce nuclear weapons. Enriching plutonium requires a nuclear reactor while uranium is enriched in centrifuges, which are easier to conceal from international monitors.
North Korea's nuclear arsenal is estimated at two to nine warheads, armed with plutonium, according to the US-based Institute for Science and International Security.
Britain's Chatham House put the number at six to 12.
The Korean Central News Agency said Tuesday that resuming enrichment at Yongbyon would boost the country's electricity generation capability as well as its nuclear weapons programme.
The impoverished nation has a limited power supply and suffers frequent power cuts.
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