WASHINGTON – North Korea’s latest threat to the rest of the world – to restart its disabled Yongbyon nuclear reactor – would take years, if it could be done at all, according to regional experts.
The rogue nation made the recent announcement with the apparent intention of heightening stress on the Korean peninsula.
But experts say it would take a year to get the plant working again and it would take another year for it to produce enough plutonium fuel needed to make a nuclear bomb.
Greater concerns exist over the assessed stockpile of from eight to 12 nuclear weapons in the North Korean inventory, they say.
In addition to the Yongbyon nuclear reactor which produces plutonium, analysts believe North Korea also may be enriching uranium as an alternative source to make nuclear weapons. Some experts believe that the last of three nuclear weapons tested by North Korea, the one tested in February, was made with uranium.
The Yongbyon reactor, disabled under a U.S.-North Korean agreement in 2007, was the source of the plutonium fuel for the Hermit State’s nuclear weapons.
In return, the Bush administration lowered sanctions, removed the country from the U.S. state sponsors of terror list and gave North Korea heavy fuel oil.
The agreement, however, called for disabling – not disassembling – the reactor. Inspectors who viewed the facility when there was access to it said that the reactor was in a major state of disrepair.
Experts who helped negotiate that 2007 agreement believe that if North Korea intends to put it back into operation, it will.
In disabling the plant, the 5-megawatt nuclear reactor’s 60-foot cooling tower was demolished.
Yet in 2010, the North Koreans told visiting Americans that they had built a uranium enrichment facility at Yongbyon
Reactivation of Yongbyon also would be costly.
The estimate for a two-year startup cycle assumes that North Korea has fuel rods stored ready for reprocessing plutonium.
Otherwise, spent fuel rods would need to be readied, and could take as long as four years before plutonium fuel could be obtained from them.
For that reason, the extended period of time it would take to rebuild Yongbyon and extract the plutonium from spent fuel rods suggests that the threat may be more of a bargaining chip North Korea intends to use to obtain more aid and lower international sanctions.
There is the prospect that North Korea's uranium enrichment efforts could go unimpeded and be done at several hidden locations. Enrichment would have to be 90 percent or better to produce nuclear weapons-grade fuel for nuclear weapons.
Given North Korea's bellicose rhetoric, however, U.S. officials see the threats as posturing.
While there have been signs of increased missile activity in recent days – and North Korea has a history of deception – there has been no significant evidence of troop movements that would portend an imminent invasion of South Korea.
As WND recently reported, Sung-Yoon Lee, an authority on North Korea and an assistant professor from Tufts University's Fletcher School, agreed that the rhetoric was unusually harsh bluster which could lead to the possibility of miscalculation.
The bellicose rhetoric from North Korea could be boxing in North Korea's 28-year-old leader, Kim Jong-un, and if he doesn't act, he could lose face, Lee said in an exclusive interview with the open source Langley Intelligence Group Network.
Other analysts believe Kim is attempting to prove to a skeptical military leadership that he can be tougher than his father, Kim Jong-il.
Consequently, Lee believes that North Korea will spark a military incident in the near future in some limited capacity to show Kim's toughness to his military brass.
Lee believes the U.S. approach over the years to negotiations with North Korea has been based on wishful thinking.
He said that just because Kim has lived in Switzerland and received some of his education there doesn't mean he will be more open to change and cooperation with the world. To the contrary, "exposure to European cosmopolitanism is not a cure for totalitarian tendencies," Lee said.
To underscore this view, Lee pointed to Cambodian dictator Pol Pot, who had spent four years in Paris during his 20s, but committed one of history's greatest genocides against his own people.
He also referred to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, who studied medicine in England, but "this has not stopped him from killing tens of thousands of his countrymen."
Lee said that critical sanctions never should have been lifted during the administration of President George W. Bush, and North Korea should not have been removed from the U.S. state sponsors terror list.
He said while the U.S. needs to take North Korea seriously, Pyongyang actually has had the advantage, believing it has "tamed" not only the U.S., Japan and South Korea but some of its closest friends, Russia and China.
In pointing to North Korea’s vulnerabilities, Lee said the U.S. must exploit them by clamping down on its sources of revenue from illegal activities, including counterfeiting, drug trafficking and selling missile technology, and restoring sanctions suspended by the Bush administration.
Other sources have talked about an economic blockade on North Korea, but China has stated it would not support such an effort.
Lee sees some kind of North Korean attack, perhaps on some South Korean islands, over the next several days that may be limited in scope to back up its high-pitched rhetoric, believing the U.S. and South Korea will return to the bargaining table in the next few months with more "rewards."
In not taking any chances for miscalculation on North Korea's part, the United States is moving two warships carrying anti-ballistic missiles near North Korea. They are the U.S.S. John McCain – named for the father and grandfather of U.S. Senator John McCain -- and the U.S.S. Fitzgerald. Stealth F-22 Raptors also were deployed.
In addition, the U.S. has moved other assets into the region due to its participation in Foal Eagle 2013, a joint U.S.-South Korea military exercise that will continue this month. This is in addition to the B-2 bombers dispatched to participate in a mock bombing run that gave North Korea the excuse to claim that the U.S. was planning a nuclear attack on North Korea.