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Seoul Official: "Existential Threat" in Possible North Korean Nuclear Missile Capability

North Korean missiles, shown on display during a 2010 military parade in Pyongyang. Seoul would act on the assumption that the North possesses a missile-capable nuclear warhead in the absence of contradicting evidence, a senior South Korean official said on Friday (AP Photo/Vincent Yu). North Korean missiles, shown on display during a 2010 military parade in Pyongyang. Seoul would act on the assumption that the North possesses a missile-capable nuclear warhead in the absence of contradicting evidence, a senior South Korean official said on Friday (AP Photo/Vincent Yu).

A high-ranking South Korean government official on Friday said that absent concrete information on the status of North Korea's nuclear weapons development, his government would act under the assumption the Stalinist state already possesses a warhead small enough to affix to a ballistic missile, the New York Times reported.

Seoul must act as if the North has a nuclear weapons capability because it does not have the luxury of being wrong, said the senior official, who was not named. South Korea has "less margin of error, because North Korean ballistic missiles tipped with a nuclear explosive would be an existential threat to us," he said.

The anonymous official emphasized to reporters he was not asserting Pyongyang actually has a viable nuclear warhead. Still, the individual's remarks were seen to coincide with Seoul's deepening worry that the North might have quietly advanced its atomic capabilities to a much greater degree than was earlier thought.

The world has had little firsthand information about the North's nuclear weapons effort since International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors were expelled from the country in April 2009. Since that time, Pyongyang has conducted a second atomic test more successful than its first one in 2006, unveiled a uranium enrichment program, and made substantial headway in constructing a light-water atomic reactor that could be used to produce plutonium for a warhead. 

The North already possesses an arsenal of ballistic missiles capable of hitting anywhere inside South Korea and is understood to have enough weapon-usable plutonium to fuel about six warheads. Still, as the Stalinist regime's first two nuclear tests were not particularly successful, most technical experts judge Pyongyang would need to detonate at least one more atomic device in order to acquire the capability to produce warheads compact enough to mount on a missile. Analysts are confident an international network of seismic activity monitoring stations would quickly detect if North Korea were to conduct another underground atomic test.

However, the South Korean official seemed to suggest North Korea should be considered a nuclear-armed state even without a third detonation.  "We must assume that North Korea has already reached the stage" of "being able to mount a nuclear device on its ballistic missiles. If not, they are getting closer to that level."

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