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North Korea Not Close to Wielding Credible Nuclear Weapon, Experts Say

Spent nuclear fuel rods, shown in a cooling pond at North Korea's Yongbyon atomic complex in 1996.  North Korea remains far from possessing a nuclear armament feasible for use in an attack, according to multiple experts (AP Photo/Yonhap News Agency). Spent nuclear fuel rods, shown in a cooling pond at North Korea's Yongbyon atomic complex in 1996. North Korea remains far from possessing a nuclear armament feasible for use in an attack, according to multiple experts (AP Photo/Yonhap News Agency).

North Korea is a long way from wielding a credible nuclear weapon that could believably be fielded in an attack, issue analysts told the Associated Press in a Tuesday report (see GSN, May 7).

Pyongyang has carried out two nuclear tests to date and fired off a number of long-range ballistic missiles, but its track record in testing is at best uneven.

The first atomic blast in 2006 resulted in a small explosive yield of 1 kiloton and the second one in 2009 was only somewhat larger. Last month's failed space launch of the long-range Unha 3 rocket  was the fourth in some years in a string of largely unsuccessful long-range rocket firings.

The Stalinist state is understood to possess enough plutonium to build roughly six warheads and it could also have begun enriching uranium to warhead levels. However, the North has yet to demonstrate the ability to produce weapons small enough to be mounted on ballistic missiles -- a key factor in whether a nation is judged to possess a credible nuclear deterrent.

Still, the North is skilled at using high-profile weapons testing to grab the international spotlight and pressure foreign countries into granting it new concessions.

Satellite images taken in April of the country's Punggye-ri atomic test site showed new digging work around a third tunnel that would likely be used in another underground nuclear blast. Since those photographs were taken, though, there have been no reports of new work around the presumed testing site, which might indicate the digging work was a deception or an atomic device is still being developed, according to AP. Or, it could indicate the Kim Jong Un government is reassessing whether to follow through with a detonation after receiving strong warnings against such an action by the U.N. Security Council.

At the same time, experts conclude that eventually North Korea will detonate a third atomic device.

"The North Koreans clearly value the demonstration effect of nuclear and missile tests, even if the test is only partially successful," Center for Nonproliferation Studies East Asia expert Jeffrey Lewis said. "North Korea gets a tremendous amount of leverage from our fear that these weapons might work someday."

Some analysts believe there is a good chance the North would use highly enriched uranium in its next nuclear test rather than the plutonium used in the 2006 and 2009 blasts. Experts also think a third test would be aimed at improving the country's ability to manufacture compact warheads for delivery by missiles.

"There can be a huge difference between a nuclear explosive 'device' and a weapon. We have no idea how large North Korea's bombs are, or even whether they have anything that would be described as a 'bomb,'" nuclear weapons expert Ivan Oelrich told AP.

"A weapon has to be light and compact, a more or less self-contained package," according to Oelrich, a nuclear arms consultant who formerly led strategic weapons issues at the Federation of American Scientists. "To fit on a missile, they would have to be less than a few hundred kilograms (about 600 pounds) and smaller than a cubic meter or two."

Were the North to successfully explode a third underground atomic device, the feat would not necessarily prove a reliable nuclear detonation capability. "Testing a device underground is relatively easy, as one can initiate the test once everything is in order and verified to be ready. A military or strategic nuclear weapon must be able to detonate on demand, with little forewarning," International Institute for Strategic Studies researcher Michael Elleman said (Eric Talmadge, Associated Press/San Francisco Chronicle, May 8).

Separately, Japan and South Korea are almost ready to ink two bilateral cooperative armed forces accords, Agence France-Presse reported.

One agreement would allow for the two-way exchange of information on Pyongyang's missile and nuclear work and would also authorize cooperative maritime search and retrieval activities, according to the South Korean Defense Ministry.

The second pact authorizes logistical collaboration, except on weaponry.

"We've been discussing dates and agenda with a view to (signing the agreements) at the end of this month," ministry spokesman Kim Min-seok said.

An unidentified Japanese Defense Ministry spokesman said Tokyo and Seoul had hastened the pace of their defense talks.

Kim rejected the notion that last month's North Korean rocket launch was the impetus for speeding up. Still, the East Asian region is on edge over worries that further North Korean provocations are coming in the near future (Agence France-Presse/Google News, May 8).

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