Chinese experts reportedly say North Korea may have 20 nuclear warheads

A report in the Wall Street Journal suggests that US defense officials may have underestimated North Korea's nuclear capability. 

Vincent Yu/AP/File
North Korean missiles on display during a military parade in Pyongyang. US officials have warned over the past year about the country's gains in three separate long-range rocket programs.

North Korea’s nuclear weapons capability may be larger and advancing more rapidly than either the United States or China had estimated, according to Chinese experts cited in a US news report. 

A report by the Wall Street Journal says Chinese specialists on North Korea who met with US officials in February told them “that North Korea may already have 20 warheads, as well as the capability of producing enough weapons-grade uranium to double its arsenal by next year.”

US officials have warned over the past year about the North’s progress in “miniaturizing” its nuclear arsenal to fit atop a missile, as well as its gains in three separate long-range rocket programs. One such rocket is an intercontinental missile designed to carry a payload more than 5,000 miles, theoretically putting it within range of California.

Sigfried Hecker, a Stanford professor who attended the meeting in February, confirmed the contents of the presentation. Pyongyang allowed Mr. Hecker to visit in 2010, when he reported seeing a large uranium-enrichment facility. 

“Some eight, nine, or 10 years ago, they had the bomb but not much of a nuclear arsenal,” the Journal quoted Hecker as saying. “I had hoped they wouldn’t go in this direction, but that’s what happened in the past five years.”

The Chinese estimate of 20 nuclear devices, and the likelihood of more being produced, exceeds the Pentagon's previous estimates and underscores the threat to US military allies South Korea and Japan. 

North Korea has repeatedly tried to test its nuclear arsenal, as Agence France Press reports. 

A recent report by US researchers warned that North Korea appeared poised to expand its nuclear program over the next five years and, in a worst case scenario, could possess 100 atomic arms by 2020. 

North Korea carried out nuclear tests in 2006, 2009 and 2013, and has an extremely active ballistic missile development programme, although expert opinion is split on how much progress it has made.

In 2012, Pyongyang demonstrated its rocket capabilities by sending a satellite into orbit, but it has yet to conduct a test that would show it had mastered the re-entry technology required for an inter-continental ballistic missile.

In a story today the Voice of America quotes James Kim of the Asian Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul, asking why China was forthcoming with its intelligence on the North.

"China’s policy vis-à-vis North Korea has been changing for some time now.  President Xi Jinping has yet to invite the North Korean head of state (Kim Jong-Un) for a summit meeting.  Relations between China and North Korea have been cool for some time now," Kim said.

"But, the recent revelation has been somewhat of a surprise because it provides a rationale for the American allies now to bulk up their defenses vis-à-vis North Korea, and that’s now good news from China’s point of view," he said.

North Korea under the Kim dynasty has long cherished nuclear weapons as the ultimate defense and security bargaining chip. The Kim family claims a sovereign right to govern the Korean peninsula, including the South, and under its "Military First" policy pours a large part of its budget into defense. 

In the 1970s, the North sought to obtain nuclear weapons from China and the Soviet Union. When that didn't happen, it developed its own program. For part of the 1990s and early 2000s, that program was subject to UN inspections, but after a series of confrontations with the Bush administration and the UN, then-dictator Kim Jong Il pulled out of the agreement. By 2006, the North had cut loose and successfully tested a nuclear device.

Kim Jong Un succeeded his late father in 2012 and immediately carried out a successful rocket test, after a series of failures, and then in early 2013 a successful third nuclear test.

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