N. Korea may have made more nuclear bombs, but threat reduced: Study

It made enough for up to 7 more bombs last year while in talks with US: Study

WASHINGTON: North Korea has continued to produce bomb fuel while in denuclearisation talks with the US and may have produced enough in the past year to add as many as seven nuclear weapons to its arsenal, according to a new study.

It has been released just weeks before a planned second summit between the North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and US President Donald Trump.

But Pyongyang's freeze in nuclear and missile testing since 2017 means its weapons programme probably poses less of a threat now, said the report by Stanford University's Center for International Security and Cooperation.

Mr Siegfried Hecker, a former director of the US Los Alamos weapons laboratory in New Mexico and one of the report's authors, said analysis of satellite imagery showed North Korea's production of bomb fuel continued last year. He said spent fuel from a reactor at its Yongbyon nuclear plantappeared to have been reprocessed from May and would have produced an estimated 5-8 kg of weapons-grade plutonium.

This combined with production of perhaps 150 kg of highly enriched uranium may have allowed North Korea to increase the number of weapons in its arsenal by between five and seven, the Stanford report said.

Mr Hecker's team had estimated the size of North Korea's arsenal in 2017 at 30, bringing a possible current total of 37 weapons. US intelligence is not certain how many nuclear warheads North Korea has and estimates by analysts have been in the range of 20-60.

The Stanford report said that while North Korea was likely to have continued work on warhead miniaturization and ensuring they can stand up to delivery via intercontinental ballistic missiles, the halt in testing would have limited its ability to make such improvements.

"They have continued to turn out plutonium and highly enriched uranium," Mr Hecker said, "but it also depends on weaponisation...

"When they ended missile testing, those things rolled backwards. So... to me North Korea ... is less dangerous today than it was at the end of 2017(though) they may have made another five to seven weapons worth of nuclear material."

The assessment of the Stanford experts was that"North Korea cannot deliver a nuclear warhead with any measure of confidence to the US mainland", although its arsenal was a real threat to Japan and South Korea. - REUTERS