WASHINGTON (Reuters) – North Korea continued to produce bomb fuel during the denuclearization talks with the United States and could have produced enough to include seven arsenals in its arsenal last year, a study released a few weeks ago revealed a planned second summit between the North Korean leader and US President Donald Trump.
FILE FILE – People carry flags in front of statues of North Korean founder Kim Il Sung (L) and late leader Kim Jong Il during a military parade marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of North Korea in Pyongyang on September 9, 2018. REUTERS / Danish Siddiqui
However, freezing the country on nuclear and missile tests since 2017 means that the North Korean weapons program is likely to be less of a threat than at the end of the year, according to the Stanford University Center for International Security and Cooperation report.
Siegfried Hecker, a former director of the US Los Alamos Weapons Laboratory in New Mexico, who is now in Stanford and was one of the authors of the report, said Reuters analysis of satellite images showed North Korea's production of bomb fuel in 2018 to continue.
He said the spent fuel produced by the operation of the 5-megawatt reactor at his Yongbyon nuclear power plant from 2016 to 1818 appeared to be reprocessed in May and would have produced an estimated 5 to 8 kg of gun grade plutonium.
In connection with the production of perhaps 150 kg of highly enriched uranium, North Korea may have increased the number of weapons in its arsenal by five to seven, the Stanford report said.
Hecker's team had estimated the size of the North Korean arsenal for 2017 at 30, which would mean a possible total of 37 weapons. US intelligence agencies are not sure how many nuclear warheads North Korea has. Last year, the Defense Intelligence Agency was at its peak with an estimated 50 nuclear warheads, while analysts reported a range of 20 to 60.
The Stanford report states that although North Korea has likely continued to work on the miniaturization of the warhead and ensured that it can manage delivery via intercontinental ballistic missiles, the test freeze has severely limited its ability to make such improvements.
"They have developed the machines to produce plutonium and highly enriched uranium," said Hecker. "But it also depends on weapon security – the design, construction, test and delivery.
"When the missile tests ended, those things rolled back. So if I look at the whole spectrum, North Korea is less dangerous for me today than it was at the end of 2017, even though they may have made another five to seven weapons in nuclear material. "
Stanford's experts said it was their assessment that "North Korea can not bring a nuclear warhead to the US mainland with some confidence," although Hecker said his nuclear weapons are a real threat to Japan and South Korea.
Hecker said it was understandable that North Korea should have continued its weapons work, as it had not made any special arrangements in recent talks with the United States to stop this work.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo told Congress in July that despite his denuclearization promise, North Korea continues to produce fuel for nuclear bombs, even though he argued – as he still claimed – that the Trump administration was making progress with the talks Pyongyang.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un pledged to work with Trump during an unprecedented first summit meeting last June to work towards denuclearizing the Korean peninsula.
There has been little concrete progress since then, but in September Kim expressed his readiness to take steps, including the permanent dismantling of nuclear facilities in Yongbyon, in return for "United States action".
The US Special Representative for North Korea, Stephen Biegun, held talks in Pyongyang for three days last week to prepare for a second Trump Kim summit to be held on February 27 and 28 in Hanoi. He said before the talks, they would discuss a relevant discussion steps that North Korea has demanded.
Trump described these talks as "very productive," but the State Department made no progress, and Biegun and his counterpart agreed to meet again before the summit.
Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore