N. Korea restarts nuke, South says, amid threats

In the Seoul train station, S. Koreans watch a TV broadcast showing N. Korean leader Kim Jong Un Tuesday, Oct. 8.

The U.S. brushed off N. Korea's threats of "disastrous consequences" for moving its ships into a S. Korean port, as South spies tell of a nuclear restart.

SEOUL — North Korea said Tuesday its military would be put on high alert and be ready to launch operations, stepping up tension after weeks of rhetoric against the United States and South Korea, as the South's spies released news that its neighbor has restarted a nuclear reactor.

Reclusive North Korea has often issued threats to attack the South and the United States but has rarely turned them into action. Such hostile rhetoric is widely seen as a way to push its domestic and international political agenda, Reuters reports.

A spokesman for the North's military warned the United States of "disastrous consequences" for moving a group of ships, including an aircraft carrier, into a South Korean port.

Related: S. Korea, US sign new pact to deter N. Korea nuclear threat

Meanwhile, South Korea's spy agency told lawmakers Tuesday that North Korea has restarted a plutonium reactor at its main nuclear facility, according to two parliamentary members who attended the closed-door briefing session, according to the Associated Press.

North Korea said in April it would restart the reactor after tensions ran high following its third nuclear test in February, but it has not confirmed that it has done so. Recent satellite photos have shown signs that the reactor may be operating, the AP said.

With the threats over the U.S. ships in South Korea, a spokesman said in a statement from the official KCNA news agency: "The U.S. will be wholly accountable for the unexpected horrible disaster to be met by its imperialist aggression forces' nuclear strike means," Reuters reported.

South Korea's Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin said later Tuesday there was no indication of unusual activity by the North's military.

Washington brushed off the North's warning.

"We've seen this type of rhetoric from North Korea before," State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said. "Such comments from North Korea will do nothing to end (its) isolation or reduce the costs (it) pays for defying the international community."

In March, the North declared it was no longer bound by the armistice that ended fighting in the 1950–53 Korean War signed with the United States and China, and threatened to use nuclear weapons to attack U.S. and South Korean territories.

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South Korea's defense ministry said the U.S. ships were taking part in a joint routine maritime search and rescue exercise with the South's navy and said any criticism by North Korea was "wrong."

The North has defied international warnings not to build nuclear and long-range missiles and is believed to have enough fissile material to build up to 10 nuclear bombs.

Most intelligence analysis says it has yet to master the technology to deploy such weapons.

The United States, which has 28,500 troops stationed in the South, regularly engages in drills with its ally, and has said the aircraft carrier USS George Washington was leading a group of ships to visit South Korea in a routine port call.

The impoverished North's large but aging conventional military is considered unfit to fight an extended modern battle, but it staged surprise attacks against the South in 2010 that killed 50 people in aggression unprecedented since the war.

Related: N. Korea postpones reunions of war-torn families, to South's regret

An attempt at dialogue in August led to the reopening of a jointly run factory park that had been shut amid high tension in April. However, talks have since hit a stalemate.

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has ordered his country's military to be on standby for combat, the head of the South's National Intelligence Service said in a report to parliament, according to Yonhap news agency.

The North also appears to have restarted its ageing nuclear reactor and conducted an engine test as part of its long-range missile program, spy chief Nam Jae-joon was quoted as saying, confirming recent private intelligence analysis.

The Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.

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