SEOUL – North Korea has the ability to “weaponize” its nuclear technology and put a warhead on a missile, the South Korean Defense Ministry said, contradicting the U.S. position that the country is years away from gaining the technology.
The report presented earlier Tuesday to lawmakers said the North can turn its nuclear devices into weapons at any time. After details of the study became public, the ministry toned down the findings, saying in a statement that the report meant that the possibility of a North Korean ballistic missile being paired with a nuclear warhead was “high.”
“The report is an acknowledgment that the North has the capability to put nuclear bombs on at least short-range missiles,” Yang Uk, a senior researcher at Seoul’s Korea Defense and Security Forum think tank, said by phone.
North Korea threatened first strikes against South Korea and the U.S. in March after a February nuclear test prompted tightened UN sanctions against the Kim Jong Un regime. President Barack Obama, who has called on North Korea to renounce its nuclear program, said in April the country didn’t have the ability to launch an atomic weapon on a missile.
Yang questioned whether the North can tip a long-range missile with a nuclear warhead. Last December, North Korea succeeded in launching a rocket to put a satellite in space for the first time. The U.S. and South Korea called the event a test of long-range missile technology in violation of UN Security Council resolutions.
The North routinely tests short-range missiles. It claimed in February after its third nuclear test that it had succeeded in making its nuclear bombs smaller and lighter.
“Just having short- or mid-range nuclear missiles would give the North far more considerable destructive power over the South,” Yang said.
The U.S. Forces Korea didn’t immediately respond to an email seeking comment on the report. Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera said at a press meeting Tuesday that he believes the North continues to advance its nuclear arms programs.
In April, North Korea said it would restart all its nuclear facilities at Yongbyon just north of Pyongyang. In early August, the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security said that the North might have doubled the size of its uranium enrichment facility. The institute cited satellite images taken July 28.
North Korea ratcheted down tensions with the South last month when it agreed to reopen an industrial complex jointly run with South Korea. That park was shuttered in April after the stricter sanctions of its nuclear program and during joint South Korean-U.S. military drills. The North has since agreed to resume the reunions of families separated by the Korean War.