x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Plutonium plant is opened in defiance

Nuclear tests force nations to consider preventative action against North Korea.

SEOUL // North Korea, which is facing international censure for this week's nuclear test, threatened yesterday to attack the South after it joined a US-led plan to check vessels suspected of carrying equipment for weapons of mass destruction. Adding to mounting tension in the region, South Korean media reported that Pyongyang had restarted a plant that makes plutonium that can be used in nuclear bombs.

Russia is taking preventive measures, including military ones, after North Korea tested an atomic bomb, Interfax news agency quoted a Russian official as saying. The official said the measures, which did not include troop movements, were needed in case a nuclear war broke out on the Korean peninsula. The UN Security Council is discussing ways to punish Pyongyang for Monday's test, which has been widely denounced as a major threat to regional stability, and that would bring the North closer to having a reliable nuclear bomb.

North Korea's latest threat came after Seoul announced, following the nuclear test, that it was joining the US-led Proliferation Security Initiative, launched under the George W Bush administration as a part of its "war on terror". "Any hostile act against our peaceful vessels, including search and seizure, will be considered an unpardonable infringement on our sovereignty and we will immediately respond with a powerful military strike," a North Korean army spokesman said.

He stressed that the North was no longer bound by an armistice signed at the end of the 1950-53 Korean War because Washington had ignored its responsibility as a signatory by drawing Seoul into the anti-proliferation effort. Seoul shares closed lower, with traders saying the latest rumblings underlined the risks for investors, stemming from simmering troubles along the Cold War's last frontier. The main index fell 3 per cent this week. The won currency was also down.

The nuclear test has raised concerns about Pyongyang spreading weapons to other countries or groups. Washington has accused it of trying try to sell nuclear know-how to Syria and others countries. The two Koreas fought two deadly naval clashes in 1999 and 2002 near a disputed maritime border off their west coast, and the North has threatened in the past year to strike South Korean vessels in those Yellow Sea waters.

Analysts say Pyongyang's military grandstanding is partly aimed at tightening its leader Kim Jong-il's grip on power so that he can more effectively engineer his succession, and divert attention from the country's weak economy, which has slumped since he took over in 1994. Many are speculating that Mr Kim's suspected stroke in August raised concerns about the succession, and that he wanted his third son to be the next leader of Asia's only communist dynasty.

There may be little the international community can do to deter the North, which has been punished for years by sanctions and is so poor it relies on aid to feed its 23 million people. A US treasury department official said it was considering the isolation of the North financially. A 2005 US clampdown on a Macau bank, suspected of laundering money for Pyongyang, effectively cut the country off from the international banking system.

The South Korean president, Lee Myung-bak, and the Russian president, Dmitry Medvedev, have agreed a strong international response was needed, including UN action, Mr Lee's office said. However, the North appears to have made good on a threat issued in April, of restarting a facility at its Yongbyon nuclear plant that extracts plutonium, South Korea's largest newspaper, Chosun Ilbo, reported. The Soviet-era Yongbyon plant had been taken apart under a six-country disarmament-for-aid deal. "There are various indications that reprocessing facilities in Yongbyon resumed operation [and] have been detected by US surveillance satellite, and these include steam coming out of the facility," the newspaper said, quoting a government source.

North Korea has also threatened to launch a long-range ballistic missile if the Security Council does not apologise for tightening sanctions to punish it for an April launch widely seen as a missile test that violated UN measures. * Reuters with additional reporting by Agence France-Presse