WASHINGTON – A U.S. government source confirmed Friday that North Korea has begun reprocessing spent nuclear fuel rods at its Yongbyon facilities as it has detected krypton 85, a reprocessing byproduct, in air samples.
It is almost certain that the new finding will heighten the already tense relationship between the United States and North Korea over Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program because the reprocessing will enable the North to make more nuclear arms.
The latest move will also make it difficult to resolve the nuclear standoff through U.S.-proposed five-way talks also involving Japan, China and South Korea.
The U.S. government source did not elaborate on the new intelligence.
Earlier in the day, NBC television quoted U.S. government officials as saying air samples collected from the vicinity of the Yongbyon nuclear complex and tested this week contain traces of krypton 85.
This is the first physical evidence indicating that North Korea has begun the reprocessing work.
Krypton 85 is released into the atmosphere when spent fuel rods are reprocessed into weapons-grade plutonium.
The new intelligence was reported to the White House in a report Thursday, NBC said.
The nuclear standoff on the Korean Peninsula emerged last October, when North Korea told U.S. officials in Pyongyang that it has a secret program to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons.
North Korean then announced its withdrawal from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and resumed operations at the Yongbyon nuclear complex, which was shut down under a 1994 U.S.-North Korean agreement.
At China-brokered talks with the U.S. in Beijing in April, North Korea claimed to possess nuclear weapons and have reprocessed spent fuel rods.
NBC said the air samples, normally collected by surveillance planes, were gathered in a new top-secret procedure that the U.S. officials refused to reveal.
The U.S. officials believe North Korea already has two or three nuclear weapons and about 8,000 spent fuel rods stored at the Yongbyon complex that could provide enough plutonium for an estimated six to 12 nuclear weapons, it said.
The report came after South Korea’s National Intelligence Service said in a briefing to the parliamentary intelligence committee Wednesday that North Korea is believed to have reprocessed a small number of the 8,000 spent fuel rods.
NBC also said U.S. intelligence reports show North Korea has also been conducting rigorous tests with conventional explosives, apparently testing designs for a new variety of nuclear warhead.
The U.S. is also concerned that North Korea may have obtained designs from Pakistan for a nuclear warhead small enough to fit in a foot locker, it said.
‘Still shy of the line’
SENDAI — North Korea has yet to cross the critical line in its nuclear weapons program, Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe said Saturday, referring to reports that Pyongyang is reprocessing nuclear fuel.
“North Korea is playing a really dangerous game,” Abe said. “But we think that the country has yet to cross the line it is not supposed to cross.”
A U.S. government source confirmed Friday that North Korea has begun reprocessing spent nuclear fuel rods at its Yongbyon facilities.
“In negotiations with North Korea, we should stay patient so that we will not be intimidated into giving in or shrink back after being struck by fear,” Abe said.