SEOUL, South Korea - South Korea said Wednesday that North Korea has started restoring its nuclear facilities after the communist country suspended operations last month to disable them.
The North said last week it had stopped dismantling its nuclear reactor on Aug. 14 because Washington had not held up its end of their disarmament deal — a promise to remove North from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism. At the same time, the North threatened to restore the Yongbyon plutonium-producing facility.
White House press secretary Dana Perino said she could not confirm North Korea had begun to reassemble the facility.
"We will be taking an assessment along with our international partners. This is not a decision that the United States makes alone," she told reporters aboard Air Force One as it flew to Louisiana where President Bush was surveying damage from Hurricane Gustav.
"We're obviously troubled by it and it's very unfortunate for the North Korean people who could be greatly helped by the action-for-action mechanism," she said.
North Korea carried out an underground nuclear test blast in October 2006. But it later agreed to disable its nuclear facilities in a deal with the U.S. and five other countries.
The North began disabling the plant in Yongbyon, north of the capital Pyongyang, in November. It later slowed the work to protest a delay in the provision of promised aid from its negotiating partners.
There was major progress in June after the North submitted its long-delayed nuclear declaration and destroyed its nuclear cooling tower in a show of its commitment to denuclearization.
The U.S. then announced it would take the North off the terrorism blacklist, a coveted goal of the North's cash-strapped regime. But Washington has demanded that North Korea must first agree to a plan to verify an accounting of nuclear programs it submitted in June before it can be taken off the list.
"And once North Korea simply agrees to a a verification protocol, then the United States will take them off of our state sponsor of terrorism list, but we're not going to do it without it," Perino said.
South Korea's Foreign Ministry said the government is "seriously concerned" over the North Korean move and was urging the North not to further aggravate the situation.
The Foreign Ministry refused to disclose how it confirmed the North had began work to restore its nuclear facilities and was vague about the exact timing of it. South Korea's Yonhap news agency reported that the work began Wednesday.
South Korean and U.S. officials have said that it would take at least a year for the North to restart the facilities after they are completely disabled.
South Korea said the six countries involved in nuclear negotiations with the North are working together closely to determine how to respond to the latest move.
The Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency said it had no immediate comment on Wednesday's claims
In its latest report on the situation in North Korea, the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency said it was doing its best to keep tabs on the facilities.
IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei released the report on Tuesday to the IAEA's 35-nation board of governors ahead of a key meeting to be held in Vienna later this month.