North Korea Could Hold 48 Nukes in Few Years, Analysts Say

North Korea could hold nearly 50 atomic armaments within a few years if no curbs are placed on its weapons program, according to an analysis released on Thursday by the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security (see GSN, Aug. 16).

The North tightly guards details about its nuclear weapons activities so ISIS analysts David Albright and Christina Walrond based their conclusions on what little is known about the program, which tested atomic devices in 2006 and 2009, Agence France-Presse reported.

Recent satellite photographs show the North is advancing work on a light-water atomic reactor at the Yongbyon complex that could be used to generate plutonium for nuclear warheads. Pyongyang is presently believed to have enough plutonium produced by a now-disabled reactor to build at least six weapons. 

North Korea also has a small uranium-enrichment plant at Yongbyon, which is currently not open to international monitoring. That facility could produce uranium enriched to the roughly 90 percent level required for a warhead.

If only the uranium plant is generating weapon-ready fissile material the ISIS experts estimate the North would have enough material for 14 to 25 warheads at the end of 2016. That number could increase to 28 to 39 within the same time frame if the light-water reactor is used to produce bomb-grade material.

In the event the North has covertly built another uranium enrichment facility -- as a number of observers suspect is the case -- it could have 37 to 48 atomic bombs, according to the think tank.

"As in many other cases, negotiations are the best way to alleviate the security challenges posed by North Korea's nuclear program. They should be pursued vigorously," advocates the report.

Albright and Walrond argued that in order to curtail North Korea's nuclear weapons growth, China must do more to domestically enforce existing international sanctions targeting its ally's atomic activities and take action against trafficking (Agence France-Presse/Google News, Aug. 16).

Meanwhile, North Korean representatives warned in recent informal talks with U.S. delegates that their government could reverse its stance on previous international deals that spell out Pyongyang's commitment to shutter its nuclear operations, Foreign Policy reported on Thursday.

The so-called "Track Two" meeting took place late last month in Singapore and involved senior U.S. issue analysts and North Korean Deputy Ambassador to the United Nations Han Song Ryol. Kyodo News this week reported a separate U.S.-North Korea meeting occurred in early July in New York City.

The two countries have not held formal talks since North Korea in mid-April attempted to send a satellite into space in explicit disregard of the wishes of the United States, which said the rocket launch violated a February bilateral deal that would have provided the North with U.S. food assistance in exchange for shutting down its uranium enrichment work and a moratorium on nuclear and ballistic missile tests.

The Obama administration canceled the planned food aid as a result of the rocket launch. Pyongyang responded by declaring it did not have to honor the terms of the February nuclear shutdown deal.

North Korea officials at the Singapore meeting reportedly told the U.S. discussion partners they had no interest in reinvigorating the nuclear shutdown agreement and that their government might even reassess older commitments such as the September 2005 joint statement, which calls for the North to permanently end its nuclear weapons development in return for large quantities of foreign economic assistance and security deals.

"The agenda (in Singapore) focused on a variety of issues," an anonymous informed insider said of the talks. "One important topic was the future of U.S.-North Korean relations. The other topics were nuclear safety, nuclear security, cooperative ways of monitoring denuclearization, and the whole raft of issues people discuss at nuclear summits."

Pyongyang reportedly has changed its negotiating posture to demand measures from the United States prior to any responding denuclearization moves of its own. 

"Their position has shifted. Whereas before, under the Leap Day deal, it was simultaneous actions, as with the September 2005 joint statement, simultaneous actions were one of the key aspects," an insider told Foreign Policy. "There is now emphasis on unilateral action by the U.S. and then the North Koreans may respond" (Josh Rogin, Foreign Policy, Aug.16).

Elsewhere, a leading contender for the South Korean presidency on Friday said upon taking office he would reverse the current conservative Lee Myung-bak administration's policy of refusing to supply unrestricted aid to the impoverished North, Reuters reported.

Since early 2008, Seoul has ended nearly all economic assistance to North Korea in accordance with the Lee administration view that previous aid to the Stalinist state did little to bring about denuclearization.

"I would like to handle North Korea issues comprehensively," opposition candidate Moon Jae-in said to reporters. "The current Lee Myung-bak administration has certain conditions to resume talks with Pyongyang, saying we will not respond to the North Unless it gives up its nuclear ambition. However, such approach makes both sides hard to take a step further" (Jane Chung, Reuters. Aug. 17).

August 17, 2012

North Korea could hold nearly 50 atomic armaments within a few years if no curbs are placed on its weapons program, according to an analysis released on Thursday by the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security.