North Korea Apparently Back to Nuclear Trolling

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Photo: Gavin Hellier/Corbis

While one can never take anything North Korea does without a pretty big helping of salt, the closed state looked like it was inching toward just a bit more international cooperation over the last few days by agreeing to open the Kaesong Industrial Complex, which it shares with the South. And then, on Wednesday, it apparently decided to alienate everybody all over again by restarting the closed Yongbyon nuclear reactor. Kim Jong-il shuttered the reactor in 2007 in exchange for fuel aid. But even the news of the reactor's restart isn't a sure thing: The U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University reported steam had appeared in satellite photographs of the site, indicating the reactor had been restarted. But that hasn't been confirmed. "After all, the country we’re trying to figure out is North Korea," one South Korean official told the New York Times.

Restarting the reactor means the North would be taking the first steps toward manufacturing plutonium in order to make more nuclear weapons. But that process takes a long time: About three to four years to make enough plutonium for two to five nuclear weapons.

The short-term goal could be to goad the United States into offering more economic aid in return for shuttering the thing again, analysts told the Times. But if that's the case, Kim Jong-un may have overplayed his hand:

President Obama has been deeply reluctant to take steps that would reward North Korea for halting activities it had already agreed to stop. His former secretary of defense, Robert M. Gates, once famously said that the United States was “tired of buying the same horse twice.”

Anyway, this could all turn out to be an elaborate fake tomorrow, or it could be all too real, such as February's nuclear test. So Wednesday's silence on the part of the IAEA is probably good policy for now.