North Korea could churn out enough plutonium to build up to 50 to 55 nuclear weapons a year if all three of its frozen nuclear reactors entered operation in coming years, a US government official said on Tuesday.
The issue could be critical to world security, partly because North Korea has been developing long-range missiles possibly capable of delivering nuclear warheads.
Washington has accused Pyongyang of being the world's biggest peddler of missiles and missile production technology. North Korea on Tuesday said US hard-liners were pushing the divided Korean peninsula to the brink of nuclear war, adding its armed forces were up to the task of defeating any enemy.
In a sign of the urgency the issue has acquired, US Secretary of State Colin Powell spent a fourth straight day consulting US allies, including Japanese Foreign Minister Yoriko Kawaguchi, about North Korea.
"The secretary reiterated what we [have] said before -- that we are not anxious to escalate this problem but we are not going to be blackmailed," State Department spokesman Phillip Reeker said of Powell's talks with Kawaguchi. "If North Korea is looking for US support, this is not the way to do it."
The reclusive communist state's defense minister, Kim Il-chol, said his country had "modern offensive and defensive means capable of defeating" any enemy. He spoke after US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld warned Pyongyang on Monday the US was "perfectly capable" of defeating Iraq and North Korea at the same time, should that ever be necessary.
Roh Moo-hyun of South Korea, who was elected president last Thursday on a campaign criticizing the tough US stance on North Korea, met the ambassadors of China, Russia and Japan on Tuesday and spoke with Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi by telephone.
In Paris, a French Foreign Ministry spokesman, Bernard Valero, deplored North Korea's nuclear moves and urged the international community to stand firm in demanding Pyongyang respect its commitments.
North Korea, denounced by US President George W. Bush as part of an "axis of evil" with Iraq and Iran, triggered international fears over the weekend by removing UN monitoring equipment at a nuclear reactor capable of yielding weapons-grade plutonium.
Restarting the 5-megawatt plant at its Yongbyon complex, as Pyongyang has taken steps to do, would spin off about 6kg a year of weapons-grade plutonium, said the US official who declined to be identified.
That would suffice for just one nuclear bomb, given the rule of thumb that it takes about 5kg of plutonium per weapon. Yongbyon is about 88km north of Pyongyang.
The output from two unfinished reactors -- a 50-megawatt unit at Yongbyon and a 200-megawatt plant at nearby Taechon -- could be added to generate as much as a combined total of 275kg of plutonium a year from all three plants, the official said, or enough for 50 to 55 weapons.
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