Chinese nuclear experts have warned that North Korea may already have 20 nuclear warheads and the capability to produce enough weapons-grade uranium to double its arsenal by next year,The Wall Street Journal reported.
The Chinese estimates of Pyongyang’s nuclear production, relayed to U.S. nuclear specialists, exceed most previous U.S. forecasts, which range from 10 to 16 bombs currently, said the report, which cited people briefed on the matter.
Experts at the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies earlier this year presented three scenarios for North Korea’s nuclear capability, predicting its stockpile of weapons could grow to 20, 50 or 100 within five years.
“The estimate that North Korea may have had 20 warheads at the end of last year — and could build 20 more by 2016 — was given during a presentation by one of China’s top uranium enrichment experts, according to people familiar with the meeting,” The Journal reported.
North Korea has conducted three nuclear detonations, the most recent in February 2013.
“I’m concerned that by 20, they actually have a nuclear arsenal,” Siegfried Hecker,a Stanford University professor and former head of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, who attended the closed-door meeting in February, told the Journal.
“The more they believe thay have a fully functional nuclear arsenal and deterrent, the more difficult it’s going to be to walk them back from that.”
Nailing down the scope of Pyongyang’s nuclear program has been notoriously difficult, and is often met with conflicting assessments of the nation’s capabilities. But, the conclusions are nonetheless sobering, especially as a US-led group of nations continues to work through a nuclear deal with Iran.
Early this month, U.S. Admiral William Gortney, commander of the U.S. Northern Command and North American Aerospace Defence Command, said the U.S. military believes North Korea has the ability to miniaturize a warhead and mount it on a ballistic missile, although there had been no tests.
And the Journal notes that the Chinese experts suggest that “Pyongyang can make enough warheads to threaten regional security for the U.S. and its allies.”
(Reuters reporting by Tony Munroe; Editing by Paul Tait)
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