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2010/02/17 08:46 KST
N. Korea may produce 14 to 18 nuke warheads by 2019 if talks fail: scholar

By Hwang Doo-hyong
WASHINGTON, Feb. 16 (Yonhap) -- North Korea may be able to produce up to 14 to 18 nuclear warheads by 2019 if the multilateral talks for its denuclearization fail, a scholar said Tuesday.

   "If North Korea is able to refurbish its fuel fabrication plant, that production rate could continue indefinitely with its arsenal reaching 14-18 weapons by 2019," said Joel Wit, a visiting fellow at the U.S. Korea Institute at the School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University, in a report.

   Wit was discussing the North's nuclear fuel reprocessing plant at its Yongbyon nuclear facilities being reactivated after it declared a boycott of the six-party talks early last year over U.N. sanctions for its nuclear and missile tests.

   He said that North Korea's "nuclear stockpile is believed to consist of sufficient plutonium to build 4-8 weapons."

   "Using existing stocks of fresh fuel, North Korea could produce a bomb's worth of plutonium each year from 2011-2013," he said in the report titled "Four Scenarios for a nuclear North Korea."

   North Korea, which conducted its second nuclear test, after one in 2006, in May last year, is widely believed to possess several nuclear warheads, with some analysts saying it has already developed the technology to mount the warheads on long-range missiles.

   The North's second nuclear test is widely seen as having demonstrated its nuclear capability unlike the previous one, which is seen as a partial failure.

   "We judge North Korea has tested two nuclear devices, and while we do not know whether the North has produced nuclear weapons, we assess it has the capability to do so," Dennis Blair, director of National Intelligence, said earlier this month.

   The chief U.S. intelligence officer also said at that time that "The North's October 2006 nuclear test was consistent with our long-standing assessment that it had produced a nuclear device, although we judge the test itself to have been a partial failure based on its less-than-one-kiloton TNT equivalent yield."

   On the second nuclear test, Blair said, it "supports its claim that it has been seeking to develop weapons, and with a yield of roughly a few kilotons TNT equivalent, was apparently more successful than the 2006 test."

   North Korea late last year said that it has "entered the final stage" of enriching uranium as an another way to produce nuclear weapons than the plutonium produced in its only operating reactor in Yongbyon, north of its capital Pyongyang.

   "The intelligence community continues to assess with high confidence North Korea has pursued a uranium enrichment capability in the past, which we assess was for weapons," Blair said at the time.

   Some analysts also say North Korea has secured enough plutonium for much more nuclear weapons from former Russian republics after the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s.
North Korea recently said it was ready to return to the six-nation forum, which it has boycotted since early last year over U.N. sanctions.

   North Korea's chief nuclear envoy, Kim Kye-gwan, reportedly will visit the U.S. next month to follow up on the tour of North Korea by Stephen Bosworth, special representative for North Korea policy, in December to discuss the reopening of the nuclear negotiations.

   As a condition to rejoining the talks, Pyongyang has insisted on the lifting of sanctions and signing a peace treaty to replace the armistice that ended the 1950-53 Korean War. Washington wants the North to return to the talks first.