S. Korea's spy agency confirms N. Korea restarted Yongbyon reactor

SEOUL, Oct. 8 (Yonhap) -- South Korea's spy agency confirmed Tuesday that the North has restarted its Yongbyon reactor that had been mothballed since 2007.

The National Intelligence Service (NIS) told lawmakers from the National Assembly's Intelligence Committee that the five megawatt graphite moderated reactor has been in operation since around August of this year.

The confirmation is the first to come out of the NIS, although independent foreign sources who analyzed commercial satellite images have speculated that the reactor could have been operating for some weeks.

The reactor, located 90 kilometers north of Pyongyang, has been cited for producing plutonium for the North's nuclear weapons program before it was shut down under a deal brokered at the six-party talks six years ago. The North had blown up the reactor's cooling tower in 2008 to show its seriousness about suspending operations.

Pyongyang, however, announced in early April of this year when tensions spiked on the Korean Peninsula that it would restart work on the small reactor, which does not generate any energy, and use it to strengthen the country's nuclear deterrence.

The move is seen by many in Seoul as an attempt by Pyongyang to pressure the United States to come to the negotiating table and resolve the decades-old standoff by pointing out that the North holds the upper hand and will make more weapons. The North has insisted on no preconditions, while Washington has made clear that Pyongyang must first announce its willingness to abide by its denuclearization pledges.

The country's spy agency also claimed at Tuesday's closed door parliamentary session that the North conducted an engine test for a long range rocket at its Tongchang-ri launch site on the west coast, said Rep. Cho Won-jin, the leading member of the parliamentary committee for the ruling Saenuri Party.

The lawmaker said that the intelligence agency believes Pyongyang has bolstered its naval forces and increased its artillery presence in the form of long-range multiple rocket launcher systems (MRLS). He said the NIS indicated MRLS are facing the South Korean capital city region, Gangwon Province and the so-called five Seohae Islands that form the sea-boundary in the Yellow Sea.

There have been numerous clashes around these islands, including the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island in November of 2011 that left four people dead.

Cho then said the spy agency's chief Nam Jae-joon pointed out that the North was making large numbers of 122 millimeter and 240 millimeter MRLSs from factories in Nampho and Hamhung. He also said that the country even revised its war planning guidelines to say it will use force to unify with South Korea within three years.

On the controversial issue surrounding measures to reform the spy agency, Nam stressed that plans centered on building strong safeguards against any kind of intervention by agents in internal politics will strengthen the agency's counter-espionage and North Korean intelligence gathering capabilities. Merging operations aimed at detecting anti-South Korean organizations both inside and outside the country will also aid in this, he said. The plan may be forwarded for parliamentary review within the month.

The director general told lawmakers that he did not feel responsibility for allegations that agents posted comments on Internet portal sites leading up to last year's presidential election, which are said to have helped the ruling party candidate. The official added that because of this, he did not feel the need to resign from his post.

Nam has maintained that the deed was carried out under the previous Lee Myung-bak administration before President Park Geun-hye took office in late February. This view is shared by Park, who said that she did not benefit from the action carried out without her knowledge.

Aside from such claims, the official also said he was aware that 10 members of a North Korean performance group allegedly connected to a scandal involving the country's first lady Ri Sol-ju had been executed.

Foreign media first reported a possible scandal involving Ri before her marriage to leader Kim Jong-un and said those who know the truth were shot to death in order to put a lid on the embarrassing incident that could undermine Kim's leadership. He said that while he knew people were executed, he could not verify if they were connected in any way to Ri.

In addition, Nam said that the North Korean leader may be losing favor with the people by spending exorbitant amounts of money of various beautification projects, theme parks and sports facilities.

He speculated that money spent in these areas totaled US$300 million, which is enough to buy 800,000 tons of corn that could feed the North for 2-3 months.

The spy agency, meanwhile, said that 44 percent of senior commanders above corps commander rank in the Korean People's Army have been changed since Kim took power after the sudden death of his father Kim Jong-il in late 2011. Such a move can be seen as the new leader's effort to consolidate his hold on the military. It said of 218 senior posts, Kim appointed 97 new officers.

The NIS head also touched on the recent scandal involving a progressive South Korean lawmaker who was recently arrested for plotting to overthrow the government in the event of a war breaking out with the North. He said said he received reports that the lawmaker, Rep. Lee Seok-ki, kept 30 personal bodyguards, and that authorities had voice recordings of him calling on his followers to rise up when the call to arms is given.

On the controversial 2007 summit meeting between late President Roh Moo-hyun and his North Korean counterpart Kim Jong-il, Nam verified that the NIS had the voice data recording of the talks, but admitted that it was not able to determine if the contents could be disclosed to the public at present.

<All rights reserved by Yonhap News Agency>