North Korea

Pyongyang has technology to build uranium-based bombs, experts say

Pyongyang has avoided international sanctions by building key components for gas centrifuges needed to make weapons, US experts say

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 25 September, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 25 September, 2013, 4:32am

North Korean scientists are able to build crucial equipment for uranium-based nuclear bombs on their own, according to evidence gathered by two American experts. That would reduce its need for imports, which have afforded one of the few ways for outsiders to monitor the country's secretive atomic work.

The experts say material published in North Korean scientific publications and news media shows that Pyongyang is mastering domestic production of essential components for the gas centrifuges needed to make the bombs. The development further complicates long-stalled efforts to stop a nuclear bomb programme that Pyongyang has vowed to expand, despite international condemnation.

If Pyongyang can make crucial centrifuge parts at home, outsiders will not be able to track sensitive imports. That could spell the end of policies based on export controls, sanctions and interdiction that have been the centrepiece of international efforts to stop North Korea's nuclear programme over the last decade, Joshua Pollack, a Washington-based expert on nuclear proliferation, said in remarks prepared for delivery today at a Seoul symposium.

"If they're not importing these goods in the first place, then we can't catch them in the act," said Pollack, who gathered the evidence with Scott Kemp, an expert on centrifuge technology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "We won't necessarily see anything more than what the North Koreans want us to see."

The state of North Korea's nuclear programme is of vital concern to Washington because Pyongyang says it wants to build an arsenal of nuclear-armed missiles that can reach American shores. The North has conducted three nuclear tests of apparently increasing power since 2006, most recently in February, and it is believed to have a handful of crude plutonium-based bombs. Many experts estimate, however, that Pyongyang has not yet mastered the miniaturisation technology needed to mount a warhead on a long-range missile. Restrictions on imports to North Korea are tightening thanks to China, which is a key ally of Pyongyang but has also been pressing it to give up nuclear weapons. A notice posted on the Commerce Ministry's website yesterday listed 236 pages of items and technologies banned from export to North Korea because of their potential use in manufacturing weapons of mass destruction.

It's not clear whether North Korea has made bomb-grade uranium, and Pyongyang says its uranium enrichment programme is for peaceful, energy-generating purposes. But analysts strongly suspect that Pyongyang could be producing large amounts of weapons-grade material.