NK believed to have enriched uranium for up to 6 bombs: expert
North Korea is believed to now have enough large stocks of weapons-grade highly enriched uranium for up to six bombs, a local nuclear expert said Wednesday, amid growing concerns that the North may be ready for a new nuclear test.
The North has long been believed to have enough radioactive material for six to seven bombs using plutonium from its main nuclear complex located at Yongbyon, north of the capital Pyongyang. Since 2009, Pyongyang appears to have started relying on enrichment activities because of its dwindling stock of plutonium after two rounds of nuclear tests.
In November 2010, North Korea disclosed an industrial-scale uranium enrichment plant to a visiting U.S. scientist, claiming that the enrichment program is for peaceful energy development. Outside experts, however, believe that it gives the North a new source of fissile material to make atomic bombs.
The American scientist, Siegfried Hecker, was also shown the uranium enrichment plant with 2,000 centrifuges.
"If the North Korean claim is true, it could allow the North to make some 40 kilograms of highly enriched uranium per year, enough for one or two atomic weapons," the South Korean nuclear expert said on the condition of anonymity.
On the assumption that the North's enrichment plant became operational in 2009, Pyongyang could have produced stocks of highly enriched uranium enough for three to six bombs, the expert said.
"North Korea has some 3,000 nuclear-related experts," the expert said, adding the North has an estimated 26 million tons of natural uranium deposits. As of 2010, a global supply of natural uranium was some 71,000 tons per year, according to the expert.
Speculations have grown that North Korea may be readying for a nuclear test following its failed launch of a long-range rocket last month, which drew swift condemnation from the United Nations Security Council.
Pyongyang's previous unsuccessful launches of long-range rockets in 2006 and 2009 were followed by nuclear tests of plutonium devices and some analysts believe, if the North conducts a third test, it will use a device using highly enriched uranium for the first time.
Last December, Hecker told a forum in Seoul that North Korea could be able to master the technology needed to put a nuclear warhead atop a missile if the communist regime carries out a third nuclear test.
Meanwhile, the expert estimated that North Korea may have spent "at least $6.58 billion" for its nuclear weapons program.
The current North Korean nuclear standoff dates back to 2002, when the U.S. criticized the North for conducting a secret nuclear program in violation of a 1994 agreement, but Pyongyang is believed to have been running the nuclear weapons program since the early 1980s.
"If the estimated money used by North Korea to build and operate nuclear facilities converts into the price of Chinese corn, it could buy 19.4 million tons of corn," the expert said.
This could feed the North's entire population for eight years, the expert said.
North Korea is currently under U.N. sanctions for its defiant missile and nuclear tests in 2009 and is set to face tougher sanctions in the wake of the April 13 launch of a long-range rocket. (Yonhap)