Weapons allegation no surprise to the neighbours

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 26 April, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 26 April, 2003, 12:00am

North Korea's reported admission it has nuclear weapons failed to shock South Korea and others in the region.It had long been suspected to possess some.

CIA and other intelligence sources have said for years that the Stalinist state has developed one or two crude nuclear weapons, although they have yet to be tested.

'The North probably developed nuclear weapons prior to the 1994 Geneva agreement with the US that froze its nuclear programme,' said Chun Sung-hoon, a nuclear researcher at the Korean Institute for National Unification, a government think-tank. 'I don't think they are bluffing this time. The North has done a number of detonation tests for nuclear weapons.'

Inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency had been at the main nuclear site in Yongbyon since 1994 until being expelled late last year.

The North has since been threatening to reprocess spent fuel rods into weapons-grade plutonium.

Most analysts think North Korea has not yet started to treat the fuel rods. The 8,000 spent fuel rods can be reprocessed into six to eight nuclear weapons, experts say, but any attempt to do so would be hard to conceal as the by-products are easily detected by satellites.

As an alternative to a home-made bomb, analysts said North Korea could have acquired nuclear weapons through members of the now-defunct Soviet Union. Some reportedly lost track of key nuclear materials in the process of the Soviets breakup.

But they rule out the possibility of North Korea having uranium-based nuclear weapons, although it admitted in October it had a secretive program based on high-enriched uranium.

According to the US, North Korea bought key components for such a programme from countries such as Pakistan.

A Japanese newspaper reported this month that North Korea shipped about 10 Scud ballistic missiles to Pakistan in February in what could have been part of a deal to pay for nuclear technology.

Quoting unidentified US security sources, the Sankei Shimbun said a Pakistani freighter with about 10 Scud-B missiles on board returned home in late February after loading them at a North Korean port the same month.

Pakistan, which conducted its first nuclear tests in 1998, has repeatedly denied reports that it helped North Korea develop its suspected nuclear weapons programme.

Nuclear experts say North Korea did not have enough time to complete the programme and no tests have been detected.