Fri, Jan 18, 2019 - Page 9 News List

N Korea’s nuclear program moves on, pressuring US

By Jon Herskovitz and Youkyung Lee  /  Bloomberg

North Korean leader Kim Jong-un this month told the world that the nation last year took steps to stop making nuclear weapons, a shift from his earlier public statements. The evidence shows production has continued and possibly expanded.

Satellite-imagery analysis and leaked US intelligence suggest that North Korea has churned out rockets and warheads as quickly as ever in the year since Kim halted weapons tests, a move that led to his summit in June last year with US President Donald Trump.

The regime probably added several intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM), nuclear proliferation analysts say, with one arms control group estimating that Kim gained enough fissile material for about six more nuclear bombs, bringing North Korea’s total to enough for between 30 and 60.

“There is no indication that their nuclear and missile programs have slowed or paused,” said Melissa Hanham, director of the One Earth Future Foundation’s Datayo Project and an expert in using satellite imagery and other publicly available data to analyze weapons proliferation. “Rather it has reached a new stage.”

Recent reports have shown that North Korea continued to operate two suspected uranium enrichment facilities — one near its long-established Yongbyon nuclear center and another location suspected of being a gas centrifuge site.

In July last year, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo acknowledged in US Senate testimony that North Korea was still producing fissile material.

Other reports suggest North Korea bolstered its arsenal in the run-up to the Trump summit and still runs a plant believed to have produced Kim’s first ICBMs capable of reaching the US mainland.

They say the regime recently expanded a factory, probably making engines for new, easier-to-hide solid-fuel rockets, and enlarged an underground base for long-range missiles.

The reports underline what is at stake as Trump considers holding a second summit with Kim, which the US president says could come “in the not-too-distant future.”

While Trump has credited Kim’s decision to halt weapons tests and dismantle a few testing facilities with preventing a war in the Western Pacific, those moves have not prevented North Korea from building new weapons out of sight that could threaten the US.

Skepticism remains about Kim’s denuclearization pledges, including his assertion in a New Year’s speech that he agreed last year to “neither make and test nuclear weapons any longer, nor use and proliferate them.”

A year ago, Kim ordered the mass production of warheads and ballistic missiles after suspending weapons tests following the launch of an ICBM capable of reaching the entire US — the last of more than 40 conducted in a 24-month span.

Non-proliferation analysts say that Kim’s strategy appears to be quietly fortifying the arsenal he has while creating the diplomatic climate necessary for North Korea to get sanctions lifted and be tolerated as a nuclear state.

The stalled nuclear talks with the Trump administration have given Kim the space to perfect the technologies needed to strike the US.

Analysts say it is only a matter of time before he acquires a targeting system and a re-entry vehicle capable of delivering a warhead safely through the atmosphere.

“I don’t know of a country that has produced an ICBM and found that building a re-entry vehicle to be a substantial barrier,” said Jeffrey Lewis, a specialist on proliferation at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, California.

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