Pyongyang could have 13 nukes, South estimates

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Pyongyang could have 13 nukes, South estimates

North Korea has spent enough time, money and human resources to have accumulated an arsenal of 13 nuclear weapons, a senior nuclear expert of the South Korean government said yesterday.

It is also believed to have 3,000 professionals working on its nuclear programs and has spent enough money on it to feed its population for eight years, according to the assessment.

It was the first time that a government nuclear expert made public a comprehensive assessment of the North’s nuclear capabilities.

The assessment came amid speculations that the North was preparing a third nuclear test in the near future. The first test was done in October 2006.

“Including 200 advanced experts, the North is believed to have 3,000 professionals working in its nuclear programs,” the source said. According to him, some of the North Korean nuclear professionals studied in the former Soviet Union in the 1950s and 1960s, and others were educated domestically. They work at the Yongbyon Nuclear Complex as well as other research facilities at schools and civilian institutions.

After the North established its nuclear physics research center in 1955, it signed a treaty on the peaceful use of atomic energy with the Soviet Union in 1959 and dozens of professionals were trained in Soviet institutes.

According to the source, the North began operating a facility capable of reprocessing up to 80 tons of spent nuclear fuel annually in 1989. The North is believed to have acquired about 40 kilograms of weapons-grade plutonium through at least three reprocessing stretches in 2003, 2005 and 2009.

Six to eight kilograms of weapons-grade plutonium is required to build a nuclear bomb, and the North is believed to have six to seven bombs based on the assessment.

In November 2010, the North showed a new nuclear facility to a visiting U.S. nuclear scientist, Siegfried Hecker, that enriched uranium. According to Hecker, the North claimed that 2,000 centrifuges were already installed and running at the time.

“If the claim is true, we assess that the North is capable of producing up to 40 kilograms of highly enriched uranium annually,” the South Korean expert said.

It takes about 15 to 25 kilograms of highly enriched uranium to build one atomic bomb, and the North is capable of building one or two nuclear bombs every year.

If the North has focused on the highly enriched uranium program since 2009, the country has had enough time to build up to six more atomic bombs fueled by uranium, bringing its arsenal to 13 at the most.

The driving force of the North’s nuclear program is the country’s vast uranium reserves, the expert said.

“The North has about 26 million tons of uranium reserves,” he said. “The discoverable reserves are about 4 million tons.”

As of 2010, the amount of uranium supplies in nuclear facilities around the world totaled about 71,000 tons.

According to the source, the North is estimated to have spent $6.58 billion on its atomic weapons programs.

“When converted into the price of maize from China, it’s enough to buy 194 billion tons,” he said. “That is about eight years worth of rations for the country. The North is short of 400,000 tons of food a year, and that money would cover the shortage for 50 years.”

By Ser Myo-ja, Jeong Yong-su [myoja@joongang.co.kr]

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