North Korea has expanded its main uranium enrichment facility and is capable of building another nuclear weapon “within a matter of weeks to months.”
That is the assessment of James Clapper, the US director of national intelligence. His recently published annual report on global dangers (pdf) finds that North Korea has increased its production of uranium and plutonium, and at a time when its rockets appear to reach further than ever before.
“Pyongyang is also committed to developing a long-range, nuclear-armed missile that is capable of posing a direct threat to the United States,” the report read.
The assessment comes just days after the country successfully put a satellite into orbit which, according to South Korea’s Yonhap news agency, suggests it has a range of 12,000 km (7,500 miles). That puts the rocket within reach of the US west coast.
But the technology in that rocket is Soviet-era stuff. It is so rudimentary that the ability to load it with a nuclear weapon—let alone guide a weaponized version of the rocket to a target such as the US—remains a decade away or more, analysts told Reuters.
Nevertheless, the confirmation that the North has indeed returned to producing plutonium correlates with a pattern of increased aggression from Pyongyang. Only last month, it conducted its fourth nuclear test, claiming the explosion was a hydrogen bomb, a much more destructive weapon.
North Korea shut down its Yongbyon nuclear facility in 2008 as part of a deal with the US for increased aid. But it announced in 2013 that it would “refurbish and restart” the plant after it conducted its third nuclear test. Analysts have previously estimated that the facility is capable of making enough plutonium for two small nuclear bombs per year.