Clos­ing North Korea’s vast nu­clear pro­gram a chal­lenge

Tal­lies of bombs, plants, long-range mis­siles un­known

Albany Times Union - Sunday - - NATION / WORLD - By Hyung-jin Kim As­so­ci­ated Press

Seoul, South Korea An un­known num­ber of nu­clear war­heads. Stock­piles of weapons-grade plu­to­nium and highly en­riched ura­nium. ICBMS. Weapons fac­to­ries — and the sci­en­tists who work at them.

The list of what it would take for the “com­plete de­nu­cle­ariza­tion” of North Korea is long.

North Korea has said it’s will­ing to deal away its en­tire nu­clear ar­se­nal if the United States pro­vides it with a reli­able se­cu­rity as­sur­ance and other ben­e­fits.

But there is lin­ger­ing skep­ti­cism ahead of Tues­day’s sum­mit be­tween Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un that Kim would fully give up the nu­clear weapons he has pushed so hard to build.

It wouldn’t be hard to hide at least some of the war­heads and ra­dioac­tive ma­te­ri­als in the coun­try’s vast com­plex of un­der­ground fa­cil­i­ties.

A look at the many pieces of a se­crecy-clouded bomb pro­gram that has rat­tled the re­gion for decades:

The war­heads

The size of North Korea’s nu­clear ar­se­nal is a mys­tery, with es­ti­mates rang­ing from 10 bombs to as many as 60 to 70.

How so­phis­ti­cated they are is also un­clear.

It’s one thing to con­duct a nu­clear test — North Korea has car­ried out six un­der­ground ex­plo­sions since 2006, in­clud­ing what it says were two hy­dro­gen bomb tests.

It’s an­other thing to make the war­heads small enough to be car­ried by a long-range mis­sile that can strike the U.S. main­land.

Kim said last Novem­ber that his coun­try had mas­tered that tech­nol­ogy, and many for­eign ex­perts and gov­ern­ments be­lieve North Korea is at least get­ting there.

“They are close enough now in their ca­pa­bil­i­ties that from a U.S. pol­icy per­spec­tive we ought to be­have as if we are on the cusp of them achiev­ing” the abil­ity to strike the United States, then-cia Di­rec­tor Mike Pom­peo said in Oc­to­ber.

Closer to home, many an­a­lysts be­lieve North Korea is able to mount nu­clear weapons on shorter-range mis­siles that could reach South Korea and Ja­pan, where 80,000 Amer­i­can troops are sta­tioned.

The in­gre­di­ents

Nu­clear bombs can be made from plu­to­nium or highly en­riched ura­nium, and North Korea has both.

A 2016 South Korean government re­port says that North Korea is be­lieved to have pro­duced 110 pounds of weaponized plu­to­nium, enough for six to 10 bombs.

North Korea shut down the plu­to­nium-pro­duc­ing fac­tory at its main nu­clear com­plex in Ny­ong­byon in 2007 as part a dis­ar­ma­ment-for-aid deal, but the ac­cord later fell apart, and satel­lite im­agery in­di­cates the North has re­sumed ex­tract­ing plu­to­nium in re­cent years.

Plu­to­nium plants are gen­er­ally large and gen­er­ate much heat, mak­ing it eas­ier for out­siders to de­tect. A ura­ni­u­men­rich­ment plant is more com­pact and can be eas­ily hid­den from satel­lite cam­eras. The cen­trifuges to en­rich ura­nium can be clan­des­tinely op­er­ated un­der­ground.

Stan­ford Univer­sity schol­ars, in­clud­ing nu­clear physi­cist Siegfried Hecker who vis­ited North Korea’s cen­trifuge fa­cil­ity at Ny­ong­byon in 2010, re­cently wrote that North Korea is es­ti­mated to have a highly en­riched ura­nium in­ven­tory of 550 to 1,100 pounds, suf­fi­cient for 25 to 30 nu­clear de­vices.

South Korean and U.S. ex­perts spec­u­late North Korea may be run­ning sev­eral ad­di­tional ura­nium-en­rich­ment plants. It doesn’t take much plu­to­nium or highly en­riched ura­nium to make a bomb, and North Korea could hide some of ei­ther or both in the more than 10,000 un­der­ground tun­nels and struc­tures it is re­ported to have.

About 13 to 18 pounds of plu­to­nium is needed to make a bomb, which would be about the size of a soft­ball, ac­cord­ing to ex­perts. For highly-en­riched ura­nium, it’s about 44 pounds for a bomb about as big as a 1-quart wa­ter bot­tle, says nu­clear ex­pert Whang Joo-ho of South Korea’s Kyung Hee Univer­sity.

The mis­siles

The United States would want North Korea to in­clude any in­ter­con­ti­nen­tal bal­lis­tic mis­siles in its dis­ar­ma­ment steps as they are the de­liv­ery ve­hi­cles for nu­clear weapons tar­get­ing the U.S. main­land.

Last year, North Korea test-launched three

ICBMS that it says are all nu­clear-ca­pa­ble. Ex­perts say, though, that North Korea has yet to demon­strate the tech­nol­ogy needed to pro­tect its bombs from the se­vere heat and pres­sure that a long-range mis­sile is sub­jected to on re­turn­ing to the Earth’s at­mos­phere.

Lee Choon Geun, a mis­sile ex­pert from South Korea’s Science and Tech­nol­ogy Pol­icy In­sti­tute, says he be­lieves that North Korea has “sev­eral but less than 10 ICBMS.”

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