US: Restarting NKorea reactor would be 'alarming'

Associated Press
White House press secretary Jay Carney speaks during his daily news briefing at the White House in Washington, Tuesday, April, 2, 2013. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
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White House press secretary Jay Carney speaks during his daily news briefing at the White House in Washington, Tuesday, April, 2, 2013. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

WASHINGTON (AP) — The U.S. called for North Korea to abandon its nuclear ambitions on Tuesday and said it would be "extremely alarming" if Pyongyang follows through on a vow to restart its plutonium reactor.

The White House and the State Department said they were taking seriously an almost daily string of threats from North Korea toward the U.S. and South Korea, ratcheted up a notch Tuesday when the North said it would revive its long-dormant reactor and ramp up production of nuclear weapons material.

But officials cast doubt on whether North Korea would follow through, portraying the latest threat as part of a pattern of antagonistic taunts that, so far, have not been backed up by action.

"There's a long way to go between a stated intention and actually being able to pull it off," said State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland.

Still, the U.S. is taking steps to ensure it has the capacity to defend itself and its allies against any threats from North Korea, and President Barack Obama is being updated regularly, said the president's spokesman, Jay Carney.

"The entire national security team is focused on it," Carney said.

North Korea said Tuesday that scientists will quickly begin "readjusting and restarting" the facilities at its main Nyongbyon nuclear complex, which was shuttered as part of international nuclear disarmament talks in 2007 that have since stalled. North Korean officials said those operations would include the plutonium reactor and a uranium enrichment plant, both of which could produce fuel for nuclear weapons.

Carney called the North's announcement a violation of its international obligations and said that while North Korea has obtained nuclear weapons in the past, it has not tempered the U.S. resolve to see the Korean peninsula rid of nuclear weapons. He called on Russia and China, two countries he said have influence on North Korea, to use that influence to persuade the North to change course.

Obama, addressing reporters briefly after meeting at the White House with Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, didn't answer a question about whether he had any message to send to the insular nation.

North Korea's recent tide of nuclear vows and aggressive threats are seen as efforts to force Washington into disarmament-for-aid talks and to boost young leader Kim Jong Un's stature as a strong military leader. Pyongyang has reacted angrily to U.S.-South Korean military drills and a new round of U.N. and U.S. sanctions that followed North Korea's Feb. 12 underground nuclear test.

Although world leaders have largely shrugged off the threats as more of the same from North Korea, U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said Tuesday that the North appears to be "on a collision course with the international community," adding that the current crisis has gone too far. And the Pentagon suggested the administration is concerned about the prospect for further escalation of tensions.

"We are looking for the temperature to be taken down," said Pentagon spokesman George Little. "We are in the business of assuring our South Korean allies that we will help defend them in the face of threats."

The Pentagon has made a conspicuous display of firepower in recent weeks, sending B-52 and B-2 bombers on practice runs over South Korea, as well as deploying F-22 stealth fighters and repositioning a missile-defense ship off the Korean coast. These moves and others are meant to deter North Korea from launching even a limited military strike against the South, while also offering reassurance to Seoul that the U.S. will stick to its treaty obligation to defend the South against attack.

U.S. and South Korean military activity is unusually high this spring because of a joint exercise, named Foal Eagle, designed to keep both countries ready in the event of conflict with the North. The exercise, held annually, began March 1 and runs through April. North Korea routinely complains that Foal Eagle and other U.S.-South Korean exercises are unwarranted provocations.

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AP National Security Writer Robert Burns contributed to this report.

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