WASHINGTON -- North Korea has already begun construction at a closed plutonium reactor it vows to restart, and it could be back in operation sooner than expected, a U.S. research institute said.
Pyongyang announced its plans Tuesday, the latest in an almost daily string of threats toward the U.S. and South Korea since it faced international censure over its latest nuclear and missile tests.
The U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies has analyzed recent commercial satellite imagery of the Nyongbyon nuclear facility, where the reactor was shut down in 2007 under terms of a disarmament agreement. A cooling tower for the reactor was destroyed in 2008.
The analysis published Wednesday on the institute's website, 38 North, says rebuilding the tower would take six months, but a March 27 photo shows building work may have started for an alternative cooling system that could take just weeks.
"Pyongyang may be poised to prove wrong conventional wisdom that it will take months to restart its reactor, and in the bargain it is also showing us that they mean business by accelerating the process of producing more material for nuclear weapons," said Joel Wit, 38 North editor and a former U.S. State Department official.
North Korea also said it would restart a uranium enrichment plant. Both facilities could produce fuel for nuclear weapons.
The North has already conducted three underground nuclear tests. Plans to restart the reactor and increase production of atomic material underscore worries about its progress in developing a nuclear-tipped missile that could target the United States. The new construction at the reactor began in the six weeks between Feb. 7 and March 27, when another aerial image showed no building going on, 38 North says.
-- The Associated Press