North has more plutonium than thoughtNorth Korea appears to have 50 kilograms (110 pounds) of weapons-grade plutonium, which is enough to produce around 10 nuclear weapons, according to a biennial white paper released Wednesday by the South’s Ministry of National Defense.
The stockpile is 10 kilograms more than what the South believed Pyongyang had eight years ago. The ministry came up with the figures after monitoring activities at the Yongbyun nuclear facility, the centerpiece of the North’s nuclear program, and adding up all the fissile material it seems to have used over the past five nuclear experiments.
The report added that the regime has reached a “significant level” of improvement in its uranium enrichment program and capability to miniaturize nuclear warheads. Exactly how large North Korea’s uranium reserves currently are is not known.
The ministry did acknowledge that Pyongyang was on a fast-track to developing an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching the U.S. mainland, but as all matters linked with the isolated country are, said it was difficult to be more specific as the North has never test-fired one.
U.S. and South Korean intelligence authorities generally admit that the North has made significant progress in its ability to miniaturize a nuclear warhead to mount atop a ballistic missile, but both sides agree that it does not yet appear to be capable of firing one that could reach mainland America.
North Korea is continuously upgrading its submarine-launch ballistic missile technology, according to the white paper, and will likely test more in the future. Last year alone, it test-launched the weapons on April 23, July 9 and Aug. 24.
The National Defense Ministry’s report was released amid rising tension in Seoul and Washington, as the North’s leader Kim Jong-un said in his New Year’s speech on Jan. 1 that Pyongyang was in its “final stages” of test-firing an intercontinental ballistic missile, which will be the first time if he actually follows through with the vow.
Last Sunday, an unnamed official from the North’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs was featured on the official Korean Central News Agency telling a reporter that the country will fire the missile at “any time, any where” the supreme leader wishes, rebuking an earlier tweet from U.S. President-elect Donald J. Trump, who wrote, “It won’t happen!” in response to Kim’s New Year’s threat.
Jeong Joon-hee, South Korean spokesman for the Ministry of Unification, said Monday during a regular briefing that Seoul has yet to detect any signs that the Hermit Kingdom is actually preparing a missile launch.
The North is trying to exert pressure on the incoming Trump administration, Jeong said, to see if it will take a different stance from the hardline policy of President Obama, which refused to talk to Kim Jong-un outside the six party talks with China, Japan, Russia and South Korea, and led international efforts to increase sanctions against the North after a slew of military provocations.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was quoted by the Associated Press on Tuesday as saying that the U.S. may need “more forceful ways” of dealing with North Korea if it persists in developing the long-range missile, a statement reportedly made during his visit to the U.S. Naval Academy.
Also mentioned in the South Korean government report on Wednesday was the fact that North Korea recruited about 80,000 more army soldiers and 10,000 additional strategic forces in the past two years, bringing the total number of military personnel to about 1.28 million.
The air force was reduced from 120,000 to 110,000, while the navy remained at 60,000.
BY LEE SUNG-EUN [email@example.com]