U.S., Korea see larger nuclear threat

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U.S., Korea see larger nuclear threat

North Korea’s capabilities in nuclear technology have taken a significant leap forward recently, and officials agree Pyongyang could mount nuclear warheads on ballistic missiles in the foreseeable future.

The conclusion was reached yesterday by South Korea’s Defense Minister Kim Kwan-jin and U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel in a bilateral meeting.

Kim and Hagel held a private meeting on the sidelines of the two-day Asean Defense Ministers’ Meeting-Plus in the capital city of Brunei, Bandar Seri Begawan. The joint defense ministers’ meeting ends today.

An official from the Ministry of National Defense was quoted by the JoongAng Ilbo as saying South Korea believes that “North Korea could be able to miniaturize nuclear warheads small enough to mount on ballistic missiles in the near future, and that this opinion was shared by his U.S. counterpart.”

On April 3, Secretary Hagel said he believed the North Koreans “have a nuclear capacity” as well as “a missile-delivery capacity,” and that Pyongyang posed “a real and clear danger.” He was speaking at a time when bellicose threats toward the United States were being issued almost daily by the North.

The new assessment of the North’s capabilities is a change from previous statements by South Korea and the United States that Pyongyang lacked the ability to miniaturize nuclear warhead technology successfully enough to be placed on a missile. But more recent intelligence reportedly led to a new conclusion.

On another thorny issue - postponing the transfer of wartime operational control now scheduled for December 2015 - the two chiefs failed to reach a final decision on the rescheduling.

“I have conveyed the South Korean government’s wish to delay the transfer in consideration of recent changes in national security and our readiness to counter them,” Kim said after his meeting with Hagel.

The Defense Ministry official, still speaking without attribution, noted that the U.S. Defense Department cannot unilaterally determine whether to accept Seoul’s proposal for a delay, but it needs to coordinate that request with other governmental agencies in Washington. “We will discuss the matter in a vice-ministerial meeting [later this year],” the official said.

BY JEONG YONG-SOO, KANG JIN-KYU [jkkang2@joongang.co.kr]

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