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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Reactor Shutdown in N. Korea Worries U.S.

WASHINGTON -- The suspected shutdown of a nuclear reactor at North Korea's main nuclear weapons complex has raised concern at the White House that the country could be preparing to make good on its recent threat to harvest a new load of nuclear fuel, potentially increasing the size of its nuclear arsenal.

While there is no way to know with any certainty why the reactor was shut down, it has been North Korea's main means of obtaining plutonium for weapons. The CIA has told U.S. Congress it estimated that in the last two years the country turned a stockpile of spent fuel from the same reactor into bomb-grade material.

The White House's concern over the past week arises from two developments. An American scholar with unusual access to North Korea's leaders, Selig Harrison, a North Korea specialist at the Center for International Policy in Washington, said after visiting the country two weeks ago that he was told by a very senior North Korean that there were plans "to unload the reactor to create a situation'' to force President George W. Bush to negotiate on terms more favorable to North Korea.

That focused new attention on spy satellite photographs of the reactor. While U.S. officials would not discuss what the spy satellites have seen, commercial satellite photographs of the plant, interpreted by the Institute for Science and International Security in Washington, show that the plant was apparently shut down at least 10 days ago, around the time of Harrison's visit.

Harrison's message and the satellite photograph present a mystery that has underscored how difficult it is for intelligence officials to decipher the state of the nuclear program in North Korea. The sign could mean preparations are beginning to extract fuel rods from the aging five-megawatt reactor, the first step in the elaborate process of reprocessing the rods into weapons-grade plutonium. But there could also be more innocent explanations, among them maintenance -- or a diplomatic bluff.

Though administration officials strike a public pose of little concern about North Korea's threats, the message brought back by Harrison has seized the attention of senior U.S. officials as they are debating internally whether the diplomatic approach they have taken for the past two years should be declared a failure. White House officials are a bit skeptical of Harrison, who has been very critical of Bush's refusal to negotiate one-on-one with North Korea, and who is often warmly received in Pyongyang.

Harrison said that in his meetings, the North Koreans said they wanted to use the removal of the reactor fuel to force Bush to "negotiate a freeze" on new nuclear activity, rather than full dismantlement. Bush has said dismantlement must come first, and he has rejected a new nuclear freeze, saying that a freeze agreement reached with President Bill Clinton ultimately failed.