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North Korea to restart nuclear reactor

North Korea is to reopen a mothballed nuclear reactor which has been closed since 2007.

North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un. Picture: AFP

SEOUL - North Korea is to restart a mothballed nuclear reactor that has been closed since 2007 in a move that could produce more plutonium for nuclear weapons as well as for domestic electricity production, its KCNA news agency said on Tuesday.

The announcement came as the United States bolstered its forces in Korea and after a speech by leader Kim Jong-un was published in which he praised the country's nuclear weapons as a "deterrent".

It was unclear how quickly the plant, whose cooling tower was destroyed, would take to restart, although the move is a big blow to China's stated aim of restarting de-nuclearisation talks on the Korean peninsula. In Beijing, a foreign ministry spokesman expressed regret at the decision.

Earlier, KCNA released a speech by Kim given on Sunday that appeared to dial down the prospects of a direct confrontation with the United States as he stressed that nuclear weapons would ensure the country's safety as a deterrent.

"Our nuclear strength is a reliable war deterrent and a guarantee to protect our sovereignty," Kim said. "It is on the basis of a strong nuclear strength that peace and prosperity can exist and so can the happiness of people's lives."

As well as restarting the 5MW reactor at Yongbyon, the North's only known source of plutonium for its nuclear weapons programme, KCNA said a uranium enrichment plant would also be put back into operation, a move that could give it a second path to the bomb.

The nuclear plant's output would be used to solve what KCNA termed an "acute shortage of electricity" and to bolster "the nuclear armed force".

North Korea conducted its third nuclear test in February but is believed to be some years away from developing nuclear weapons, although it claims to have a deterrent.

After being hit with US sanctions for conducting the test and what it has viewed as "hostile" military drills being staged by Seoul and Washington in the South, Pyongyang has threatened a nuclear strike on the United States, missile strikes on its Pacific bases and war with South Korea.

Washington, which has said it has not seen any evidence of hostile North Korean troop moves, deployed a warship off the Korean coast overnight.

The United States earlier bolstered forces staging joint drills with South Korea with Stealth fighters and has made bomber overflights in a rare show of strength.

Kim's speech, delivered to the central committee meeting of the ruling Workers Party of Korea, appeared to show a change of tack, but it was some distance from signalling an end to the current crisis.

"The fact that this (speech) was made at the party central committee meeting, which is the highest policy-setting organ, indicates an attempt to highlight economic problems and shift the focus from security to the economy," said Yang Moo-jin of the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul.