N Korea able to pro­duce 20 nu­clear bombs: Ex­perts

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NORTH Korea will have enough ma­te­rial for about 20 nu­clear bombs by the end of this year with en­hanced ura­ni­u­men­rich­ment fa­cil­i­ties and an ex­ist­ing stock­pile of plu­to­nium, ac­cord­ing to new as­sess­ments by weapons ex­perts.

The rev­e­la­tions came as North Korea ac­cused the United States of push­ing the Korean penin­sula to “the point of ex­plo­sion” af­ter it dis­patched two huge bombers in a show of force against North Korea.

The Amer­i­can su­per­sonic B-1B Lancers flew over South Korea on Tues­day as the US pledged its “un­shake­able com­mit­ment” to de­fend its al­lies in the re­gion, fol­low­ing North Korea’s fifth and largest-ever nu­clear test con­ducted last week.

The North has evaded a decade of United Na­tions sanc­tions to de­velop its ura­nium en­rich­ment process, en­abling it to run an ef­fec­tively self-suf­fi­cient nu­clear pro­gramme that is ca­pa­ble of pro­duc­ing six nu­clear bombs a year, arms an­a­lysts say.

The true nu­clear ca­pa­bil­ity of the iso­lated and se­cre­tive state is im­pos­si­ble to ver­ify.

Ac­cord­ing to South Korea, the North is pre­par­ing for an­other nu­clear test — a sign it has no short­age of ma­te­rial to do so.

North Korea has an abun­dance of ura­nium re­serves and has been work­ing covertly for more than a decade on a project to en­rich the ma­te­rial to weapons-grade level, the ex­perts say.

That project, be­lieved to have been ex­panded sig­nif­i­cantly, is most prob­a­bly the source of up to 150kg of highly en­riched ura­nium a year, said Siegfried Hecker, a lead­ing ex­pert on the North’s nu­clear pro­gramme.

That quan­tity is enough for roughly six nu­clear bombs, Hecker, who toured the North’s main Yong­byon nu­clear fa­cil­ity in 2010, wrote in a re­port on the 38 North web­site, of Johns Hop­kins Univer­sity in Wash­ing­ton DC, pub­lished on Mon­day.

Added to an es­ti­mated 32-54kg plu­to­nium stock­pile, the North will have suf­fi­cient fis­sile ma­te­rial for about 20 bombs by the end of 2016, Hecker said.

As­sess­ments of the North’s plu­to­nium stock­pile are gen­er­ally con­sis­tent and be­lieved to be ac­cu­rate be­cause ex­perts and gov­ern­ments can es­ti­mate plu­to­nium pro­duc­tion lev­els from tell­tale signs of re­ac­tor op­er­a­tion in satel­lite im­agery. Hecker, a for­mer di­rec­tor of the US Los Alamos Na­tional Lab­o­ra­tory, where nu­clear weapons have been de­signed, has called North Korea’s ura­nium-en­rich­ment pro­gramme “their new nu­clear wild card”.

Jef­frey Lewis, of the Cal­i­for­nia-based Mid­dle­bury In­sti­tute of In­ter­na­tional Stud­ies, said North Korea had an un­con­strained source of fis­sile ma­te­rial, both plu­to­nium from the Yong­byon re­ac­tor and highly en­riched ura­nium from at least one and prob­a­bly two sites. “The pri­mary con­straint on its pro­gramme is gone,” Lewis said.

Weapons-grade plu­to­nium has to be ex­tracted from spent fuel taken out of re­ac­tors and then re­pro­cessed, and there­fore would be lim­ited in quan­tity.

A ura­nium-en­rich­ment pro­gramme pro­duc­tion of ma­te­rial for weapons.

De­spite sanc­tions, by now North Korea is prob­a­bly largely self-suf­fi­cient in op­er­at­ing its nu­clear pro­gramme, although it may still strug­gle to pro­duce some ma­te­rial and items, Lewis said.

“While we saw this work in Iran, over time coun­tries can ad­just to sanc­tions,” he said. — Al Jazeera greatly boosts

Julius Malema

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