N. Korea expanding nuclear power plant

April 03, 1994|By New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON -- North Korea is expanding the potential of its nuclear installation to separate plutonium and may double the capacity of the plant in as little as six months, U.S. officials said yesterday.

The officials said that international monitors discovered while visiting the site last month that North Korea had begun installing a second production line at the plutonium reprocessing plant.

The move was described by the officials as part of a long-term effort by North Korea to expand its nuclear program.

Nuclear experts have long been concerned that North Korea would expand its ability to produce plutonium. While the plutonium reprocessing center at Yongbyon was built to accommodate two production lines, only one had been installed.

The construction of the second line worries some administration experts, who see it as a signal that North Korea may be determined to continue developing nuclear weapons despite Washington's diplomatic pressure and the threat of possible economic sanctions.

After an impasse of several months, North Korea agreed in February to permit international inspectors to visit its seven known nuclear sites.

But during the inspections in March, North Korea abruptly prevented the inspectors from completing their work at the Yongbyon reprocessing plant.

Taken with that refusal, the installation of the new line is likely to add to the pressure from congressional critics for the Clinton administration to take a firmer stand.

So far, the administration has argued in favor of a cautious, "step by step" approach, arguing that time is on its side.

On Thursday, the U.N. Security Council issued a statement urging the North Koreans to allow the inspectors to complete their work. The plan is to wait about six weeks to see if the North Koreans comply before the council takes up the question of economic sanctions.

In keeping with that deliberate approach, Washington and South Korea have deferred a decision on the scheduling of their joint military exercises in the hope that their diplomatic efforts will work.

North Korea's effort to expand its plutonium reprocessing capability was first disclosed by Nucleonics Week, a trade newsletter, and was reported yesterday by the Washington Post.

In addition to the plutonium reprocessing plant, the Yongbyon complex, about 60 miles north of Pyongyang, includes a 5-megawatt nuclear reactor.

North Korea withdrew a load of fuel from the reactor in 1989 and reprocessed some or all of it to produce plutonium, according to U.S. intelligence officials.

The majority view among U.S. intelligence agencies is that there is a "better than even" chance that North Korea has used the plutonium to make one or two nuclear bombs.

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