S. Korea Warns N. Korea Against Reprocessing Spent Fuel Rods

[imText1]April 20 (Yonhap) —- South Korea’s foreign minister warned North Korea on Wednesday not to attempt to reprocess spent fuel rods from a suspended nuclear reactor, saying it would be a “matter of serious concern.”

North Korea recently halted the 5-megawatt reactor at its main nuclear complex in Yongbyon, 90 kilometers north of Pyongyang, raising the stakes in its nuclear standoff with the United States.

On Tuesday, a senior North Korean diplomat in New York, Han Song-ryol, confirmed in a newspaper interview that his country stopped the reactor to produce bombs and to “increase its deterrence” against a possible U.S. attack.

“We cannot but express serious concern if the North’s suspension of the 5-megawatt reactor is aimed at reprocessing (spent fuel rods),” Seoul’s Foreign Minister Ban Ki-moon said during his weekly press briefing.

“This kind of act by North Korea runs counter to the expectations of the international community for a peaceful and diplomatic resolution of the nuclear issue, and it also does not conform to North Korea’s interests,” he said.

The Yongbyon reactor can yield 8,000 spent fuel rods that experts say can be reprocessed into enough plutonium to make up to six bombs. Its two-year operation came to a halt recently. A reactor should be stopped to remove fuel rods from it.

In 1994, North Korea put the reactor and about 8,000 spent fuel rods from it in mothballs following an agreement with the U.S. In return, the communist state was promised two light-water reactors, which are difficult to divert for military purposes, and free fuel-oil shipments until the civilian reactors were built.

But the North restarted the sensitive facility after Washington cut off the promised oil supplies, accusing Pyongyang of breaking the 1994 accord by secretly pursuing a nuclear arms program using highly enriched uranium.

North Korea has long been suspected of possessing one or two nuclear bombs. Yet some analysts have said the North’s nuclear arsenal would be larger if it had indeed reprocessed, as it has claimed, the spent fuel rods that had been mothballed under the 1994 deal.

On Feb. 10, the North declared that it is a nuclear state and has since said it would bolster its nuclear arsenal.

Ban urged North Korea to stop dragging its feet and come back to the six-nation nuclear disarmament talks aimed at negotiating away its nuclear program in return for economic and other benefits.

“Not only the U.S., but other countries are also deeply concerned about North Korea’s delay strategy,” he said. “This is not desirable for anyone.”
On Monday, the U.S. floated the possibility of taking North Korea to the U.N. Security Council if it continues to refuse to return to the dialogue table.

North Korea can face a variety of sanctions if the Council takes up the nuclear problem. The communist state was referred to the Council two years ago, but the U.N. body has not acted on it in order to give time for diplomacy.

Ban tried to play down the Council option, something that is sure to anger North Korea. Pyongyang has said “sanctions mean war.”
“This (talk of the Council option) is coming out in a nonspecific manner as an alternative in case the ongoing efforts fail to succeed,” Ban said. “There is no discussion going on between South Korea and the U.S. concerning a referral to the council.”
A flurry of diplomacy has been under way to get the country back to the six-party talks, but there have been few positive signs.

The nuclear forum, involving the two Koreas, the United States, China, Japan and Russia, met three times as of June last year in an endeavor to bring a peaceful halt to the North’s nuclear ambitions.

The North has since boycotted the nuclear forum, citing Washington’s “hostile policy” toward the communist state.