Has North Korea just become a bigger nuclear threat?
Strictly speaking, that might be the case. On Tuesday, North Korea's official news agency reported that the country had finished reprocessing 8,000 spent nuclear fuel rods. Those rods likely provided enough plutonium for at least one nuclear weapon.
"What their provocative behavior over the last few years has shown is that slowly but surely they are improving their technological capabilities," says Nicholas Szechenyi, an East Asian expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "If indeed they have reprocessed this additional fuel, you have to take the threat seriously."
North Korea has already carried out two nuclear tests, one in 2006, and one in May of this year. Prior to Tuesday's announcement, Pyongyang had a stockpile of 30 to 50 kilograms of plutonium, according to the US Congressional Research Service. That is enough for five to eight nuclear devices.
North Korea is so poor that it is unable to feed its population on a regular basis. Western visitors have noted that the buildings at its Yongbyon nuclear complex are largely unheated, to save on fuel. But that does not mean its nuclear scientists are unskilled, or its weapons technologies backward.
"All of our [North Korean] hosts projected an attitude of pride and confidence," wrote Mr. Hecker after a 2006 trip to Yongbyon.
It is possible this attitude was just bravado. But other western experts have noted that the US should not underestimate North Korea's nuclear abilities.
However, there may be a cap on Pyongyang's ability to produce more plutonium. The nuclear reactor at the Yongbyon complex, from which the plutonium was derived, was disabled in 2008, per an agreement reached between North Korea and five other nations in international disarmament talks.
It has not been rebuilt. A satellite photo of the site, taken in September and posted on the web site of the Institute for Science and International Security, shows no reconstruction efforts at the reactor site. LINK:
If North Korea wanted to increase its nuclear arsenal, it would have to either restart this reactor, or pursue some other means of producing fissile material. North Korean officials recently have claimed they're beginning efforts to enrich uranium. That would be disturbing, if true, says Nicholas Szechenyi of CSIS.
"Uranium enrichment is much harder to detect than the production of plutonium," he says.
The six-nation disarmament talks involving North Korea are currently stalled. State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said Tuesday that the Obama administration is focused on jump-starting those negotiations.
Some analysts believe that Pyongyang's announcement of plutonium production was its way of ratcheting up pressure, to get those talks to restart on North Korean terms.
State Department spokesman Kelly said that this use of more nuclear fuel for weapons in fact violates pledges made by North Korea in the past.
"Reprocessing plutonium is contrary to North Korea's own commitments," said Kelly.
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