North Korea has expanded a uranium enrichment facility and restarted a plutonium reactor that could start recovering material for nuclear weapons, the US intelligence chief has said.
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said that Pyongyang announced in 2013 its intention to refurbish and restart nuclear facilities, to include the uranium enrichment facility at Yongbyon and its graphite-moderated plutonium production reactor, which was shut down in 2007.
Mr Clapper said US intelligence had assessed that North Korea has expanded Yongbyon and restarted the plutonium production reactor there.
Mr Clapper also told the Senate Armed Services Committee in his opening statement that North Korea has been operating the reactor long enough that it could begin to recover plutonium “within a matter of weeks to months”.
Both findings will deepen concern that North Korea is not only making technical advances in its nuclear weapons programme, following its recent underground test explosion and rocket launch, but is working to expand what is thought to be a small nuclear arsenal.
US-based experts have estimated that North Korea may have about 10 bombs, but that could grow to between 20 and 100 by 2020.
North Korea on Sunday launched a rocket carrying an Earth observation satellite into space. The launch followed a January 6 underground nuclear explosion that North Korea claimed was the successful test of a “miniaturised” hydrogen bomb.
Many outside experts were skeptical and Mr Clapper said the low yield of the test “is not consistent with a successful test of a thermonuclear device”.
Mr Clapper said that Pyongyang is also committed to developing a long-range, nuclear-armed missile that is capable of posing a direct threat to the United States, “although the system has not been flight-tested”.