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(LEAD) N.K. presumed to be holding 280 kg of highly enriched uranium: expert

2017/02/09 16:30

(ATTN: UPDATES with reaction from foreign minister in last 3 paras)

SEOUL, Feb. 9 (Yonhap) -- North Korea is presumed to possess around 280 kilograms of highly enriched uranium, which, combined with the country's plutonium stockpile, is enough to make upwards of 45 nuclear weapons, a South Korean expert said Thursday.

Lee Sang-hyun, vice president at the research planning division of the Sejong Institute, told a forum that Pyongyang may deploy various types of nuclear weapons and missiles before the end of 2020, given the current pace of development.

His assessment was based on the assumption that the North's reprocessing of plutonium may increase by 6 kg annually and its possession of highly enriched uranium could reach 80 kg every year.

The country's holding of plutonium is projected to reach some 52 kg, he added.

"Given the amount of fissile material in North Korea's possession, the country could have about 22-45 nuclear weapons," Lee said.

North Korea conducted two nuclear tests last year alone following those in 2006, 2009 and 2013. It also test-fired more than 20 ballistic missiles and threatened to launch an intercontinental ballistic missile that could reach the U.S. mainland.

Lee said that Pyongyang appears to have used highly enriched uranium for its fifth nuclear test in September last year.

"If the North utilizes the technology to boost nuclear weapons' destructive power, the country would be able to more easily develop smaller nuclear warheads," he added.

Touching on North Korea's uranium possession, the foreign ministry said that South Korea is regularly assessing North Korea's uranium stock through frequent information sharing with the United States, but did not disclose its results.

"Our government is closely watching North Korea's increasing nuclear capabilities with keen concerns," spokesman Cho June-hyuck said in a press briefing.

"North Korea should accept the international community's grave warnings against any kind of words or behavior that could foment regional tensions," he said, urging the country to "give up all its nuclear weapons in compliance with United Nations Security Council resolutions."

   sooyeon@yna.co.kr

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