VIENNA, Austria — North Korea announced today that it is preparing to restart the facility that produced its atomic bomb, indicating that it plans to pull out of an international deal to end its nuclear program.
The North told the International Atomic Energy Agency that it was stopping the process of disabling its main nuclear site and completely barring international inspectors from the Yongbyon facility, the agency said.
“Since it is preparing to restart the facilities at Yongbyon, the DPRK has informed the IAEA that our monitoring activities would no longer be appropriate,” the U.N. nuclear watchdog said, using the formal acronym for North Korea.
It said that Pyongyang “informed IAEA inspectors that effective immediately access to facilities at Yongbyon would no longer be permitted” and “also stated that it has stopped its (nuclear) disablement work.”
Pyongyang barred agency personnel from the plutonium-reprocessing part of its facility at Yongbyon last month after telling them to remove IAEA seals from the plant in a reversal of its pledge to disable its nuclear program.
But today’s statement was the clearest indication to date that the North planned to abrogate the deal, said a senior diplomat familiar with the statement. The diplomat demanded anonymity because he was not authorized to comment to the media.
Still, Pyongyang’s moves also could be a negotiating ploy — the year needed to start its reprocessing plant could be used to wrest more concessions from its interlocutors.
The IAEA said its small inspection team would remain on the site until told otherwise by North Korean authorities, and the U.S. State Department said it does not view North Korea’s statement as the end of the six-nation agreement on ending North Korea’s atomic program.
“This is a regrettable step, but one that is reversible,” State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said.
North Korea, meanwhile, warned South Korea against sending naval ships into its waters, threatening warfare as it reportedly shifted an arsenal of missiles to a nearby island for more test launches.
The warning came hours after a South Korean newspaper reported that a U.S. spy satellite detected signs the North had positioned about 10 missiles near the disputed sea border after test-firing two short-range missiles on Tuesday. The Chosun Ilbo report cited an unidentified South Korean official.
Yongbyon, located about 60 miles (90 kilometers), north of Pyongyang has three main facilities: a 5-megawatt reactor, a plutonium reprocessing plant and a fuel fabrication complex.
The reactor is the centerpiece of the complex, with the facility stretching more than a mile (nearly 2 kilometers) along the Churyong River, satellite images show.
The reprocessing center to the south of the reactor is capable of extracting weapons-grade plutonium from spent fuel rods. Thousands of them remain in storage but would likely be moved to the reprocessing plant as a next step.
South of the reprocessing center, fuel rods are made from natural uranium in the fuel fabrication complex that lies tucked into a bend in the Churyong River.
A second reactor with the potential to produce much high higher quantities of plutonium has not been completed.
Yongbyon was under IAEA seal in December 2002 when Pyongyang ordered U.N. inspectors out of the country and restarted its nuclear activities, unraveling a deal committing the U.S. to help the North build a peaceful nuclear program.
North Korea quit the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in January 2003. Then on Oct. 9, 2006, it set off an underground test explosion of a nuclear bomb. There was widespread international condemnation, but the U.S. also softened its position and the six-nation deal soon followed.
The North was to dismantle the Yongbyon nuclear complex in return for diplomatic concessions and energy aid equivalent to 1 million tons of oil under the deal with the U.S., South Korea, China, Russia and Japan.
Scientists began disabling the Yongbyon reactor a year ago, and in June the North blew up its cooling tower in a dramatic show of commitment to the pact.
Eight of the 11 steps needed to disable the reactor had been completed by July, North Korean officials said.
But the accord hit a bump in mid-August when the U.S. refused to remove North Korea from its list of states that sponsor terrorism until the North accepts a plan for verifying a list of nuclear assets that the Pyongyang regime submitted to its negotiating partners.
John Bolton, who has served as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations and U.S. undersecretary of state in charge of the North Korean nuclear dossier, said the North’s latest move is “just another piece of evidence that the diplomatic route has failed.”
Bolton, a critic of what he considers U.S. leniency with Pyongyang, told The Associated Press that “it would be inconceivable to remove North Korea from the terrorism list now, if in fact they have gone further and expelled IAEA inspectors.”
Associated Press Jean H. Lee contributed to this report from Seoul, South Korea.