South Korea confirmed Friday that North Korea has restarted a small reactor that could produce plutonium for atomic weapons.
The United States and Japan said earlier the 5-megawatt reactor had been reactivated, but South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun said Friday morning his Cabinet officials were still looking into the matter.
In a statement issued later in the day, the Foreign Ministry expressed "deep concern and regret over North Korea's reactivation of the 5-megawatt reactor." A ministry spokesman, speaking on condition of anonymity, also confirmed that the nuclear facilities at Yongbyon were active.
For weeks, there have been conflicting reports about whether it was up and running.
South Korea's struggle to verify the latest report demonstrates the difficulty the international community faces in monitoring nuclear activities in one of the world's most isolated countries. U.S. intelligence officials cited a telltale steam plume rising from the reactor's cooling tower.
The Foreign Ministry statement did not detail the evidence on which South Korea concluded the plant was active. But it said it had been in close contact with the United States and Japan, and said it was committed to finding a peaceful solution.
"We repeatedly urge North Korea to positively respond to the international community's efforts to peacefully resolve the nuclear issue and to implement obligations of the Non Proliferation Treaty," the Foreign Ministry said.
"We are devoting active efforts to resolve North Korea's nuclear issue peacefully through dialogue," it said in a statement.
The reactivation could enable North Koreans to build a bomb in about a year, said the U.S. officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity. The United States believes North Korea already has one or two nuclear bombs.
The crisis flared in October when the U.S. government said North Korean officials had admitted pursuing a secret nuclear arms program, a charge later denied by the North.
Washington and its allies cut off oil shipments, and the North responded by saying it would reactivate frozen nuclear facilities, expelling U.N. monitors and withdrawing from the global Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.
Roh's first Cabinet, which took office Thursday, pledged to seek a peaceful resolution with North Korea, despite news that their communist neighbor has restarted the reactor at the center of a suspected weapons program.
North Korea had no immediate reaction to the reactor report. It has insisted its nuclear development is for electricity generation, a claim U.S. officials and private experts reject.
A spokeswoman at the International Atomic Energy Agency, Melissa Fleming, said the U.N. agency could not verify the report because North Korea has expelled its inspectors at frozen nuclear facilities at Yongbyon.
But Japanese Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi said Friday that her government has confirmed the report. She declined to elaborate.
Japanese officials said they would discuss whether the move by the North should affect their support of a U.S.-led project to build two modern reactors in North Korea under a 1994 agreement. The project was in doubt after Washington said in October that Pyongyang violated the accord by secretly running a nuclear weapons program.
A much more serious challenge than reactivating the reactor is if North Korea restarts a separate facility in Yongbyon that can reprocess a stockpile of 8,000 spent fuel rods to extract enough plutonium for four or five bombs in a matter of months.
The new foreign minister, Yoon Young-kwan, a U.S.-educated political scientist, said Thursday he would also focus on relations with the United States, which keeps 37,000 U.S. troops in South Korea a legacy of the 1950-53 Korean War.
"We must devote all our diplomatic efforts so that the North Korean nuclear issue can be resolved peacefully through dialogue," Yoon said.
Roh retained Unification Minister Jeong Se-hyun, a key architect of former President Kim Dae-jung's policy of engaging the North to reduce tension on the divided Korean Peninsula.
"I will make efforts to enhance the implementation of the (engagement) policy so that the country can set up a framework for achieving peace and prosperity in the Northeast Asian region," Jeong said.
On the eve of Roh's inauguration, North Korea test-fired a missile off the peninsula's eastern coast.
By Sang-Hun Choe