Minister says North has tech for uranium bomb

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Minister says North has tech for uranium bomb


Minister of National Defense Han Min-koo testifies yesterday. [NEWSIS]

A top defense official said yesterday North Korea has the technology to build uranium-based atomic bombs, the first such admission by the South Korean government.

At a National Assembly’s audit, Minister of National Defense Han Min-koo addressed the progress of the North’s nuclear program in response to a question by Rep. Kim Sung-chan of the ruling Saenuri Party. He asked if Pyongyang was capable of building a uranium-based bomb.

“North Korea has conducted three nuclear tests and a significant time has passed since then,” Han said. “The North has also announced that its capability has reached a certain level.”

Han also said it is believed that the North’s miniaturization of its nuclear technology has improved considerably, although there was no confirmation on how far. The South Korean military must be ready for a situation based on those assumptions, he said.

The minister’s testimony was in line with comments Friday by the commander of the U.S. Forces Korea, who said he believes Pyongyang has the capability to build a nuclear weapon that can fit on a ballistic missile.

“I believe they have the capability to miniaturize a device at this point and they have the technology to potentially deliver what they say they have,” General Curtis Scaparrotti said during a news conference at the Pentagon on Friday.

“We’ve not seen it tested, and I don’t think as a commander we can afford the luxury of believing perhaps they haven’t gotten there,” he added.

Asked about the possibility that the North has developed missiles capable of carrying multiple warheads, Han said yesterday there was no confirmation on the progress, but the South must not rule out the possibility that the North is armed with such advanced technology.

Through its initial nuclear program, the North is believed to have a handful of crude plutonium-based bombs.

Pyongyang also pushed forward another clandestine nuclear program using highly enriched uranium and admitted to its existence in 2002.

Since then, it has conducted three nuclear tests. The first and second in 2006 and 2009 were believed to test plutonium-based devices, but the most recent one in February last year was believed to be a test of a uranium-based device.

Intelligence authorities have assessed that the North is capable of producing up to 40 kilograms (88 pounds) of highly enriched uranium annually. A warhead requires up to 20 kilograms of the atomic substance and the North, theoretically, can build two uranium-based bombs every year.

While reprocessing plutonium requires a larger facility including a reactor, making weapons-grade uranium uses simpler centrifuges. The international community tried to block the North from obtaining components to build the centrifuges, but Pyongyang managed to learn to produce parts domestically, experts have said.

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