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North Korea’s Nuclear Weapons: Technical Issues

North Korea’s Nuclear Weapons: Technical Issues, Mary Beth Nikitin, Specialist in Nonproliferation, February 12, 2013

  • “This report summarizes what is known from open sources about the North Korean nuclear weapons program—including weapons-usable fissile material and warhead estimates—and assesses current developments in achieving denuclearization. Little detailed open-source information is available about the DPRK’s nuclear weapons production capabilities, warhead sophistication, the scope and success of its uranium enrichment program, or extent of its proliferation activities. In total, it is estimated that North Korea has between 30 and 50 kilograms of separated plutonium, enough for at least half a dozen nuclear weapons. While North Korea’s weapons program has been plutonium-based from the start, in the past decade, intelligence emerged pointing to a second route to a bomb using highly enriched uranium. North Korea openly acknowledged a uranium enrichment program in 2009, but has said its purpose is the production of fuel for nuclear power. In November 2010, North Korea showed visiting American experts early construction of a 100 MWT light-water reactor and a newly built gas centrifuge uranium enrichment plant, both at the Yongbyon site. The North Koreans claimed the enrichment plant was operational, but this has not been independently confirmed. U.S. officials have said that it is likely other, clandestine enrichment facilities exist. A February 2012 announcement committed North Korea to moratoria on nuclear and long-range missile testing as well as uranium enrichment suspension at Yongbyon under IAEA monitoring. However, an April 2012 satellite launch, which violated UN Security Council resolutions, caused a collapse of the February agreement. A December 2012 satellite launch was met with UN Security Council condemnation. North Korea has also made policy statements asserting its nuclear weapons status: in May 2012, North Korea changed its constitution to say that it was a “nuclear-armed state.” In January 2013, North Korea said that no dialogue on denuclearization “would be possible” and it would only disarm when all the other nuclear weapon states also disarm.”
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