Impoverished North Korea might resort to selling weapons-grade plutonium to terrorists for much-needed cash and that would be "disastrous for the world," the top US military commander in South Korea said yesterday.
General Leon LaPorte said the communist state may have harvested plutonium from a pool of 8,000 spent nuclear rods, which experts say could yield enough material for several atomic bombs.
The North's intent was a mystery, but "from the military stand point, they do have a capability that we must address," LaPorte told a forum in Seoul.
"And there is concern that North Korea, in its desire for hard currency, would sell weapons-grade plutonium to some terrorist organizations," he said. "That would be disastrous to the world."
US officials have already designated the isolated and impoverished North as a key proliferator of missiles, missile technology and other military hardware. The country says it has the right to sell missiles for cash but is willing to stop doing so if the US offers economic compensation.
Since last year, the two Koreas, China, Japan, Russia and the US have held three rounds of talks aimed at curbing North Korea's nuclear ambitions, but no breakthrough has been reported.
A fourth round slated for September failed to go ahead because North Korea refused to attend.
North Korea has recently threatened to strengthen its "nuclear deterrent" to counter what it calls a US plot to launch a nuclear war against it.
It said it will return to nuclear talks when Washington drops a "hostile" policy toward the North. It seeks economic aid and US guarantees of nonaggression in return for giving up its nuclear desire.
In early 2003, North Korea withdrew from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. It has since said it completed reprocessing its 8,000 spent fuel rods. In September, a North Korean diplomat claimed that the country "weaponized" the nuclear fuel.
South Korean officials said North Korea was believed to have enough plutonium for two or three bombs. Some 33,000 US soldiers are based in South Korea -- a legacy of the 1950-53 Korean War, which ended without a peace treaty.