Analysis: What is the real threat of North Korea's nuclear programme?

WHAT IS NORTH KOREA'S NUCLEAR WEAPONS CAPABILITY?

North Korea is thought to have produced enough plutonium for about six to eight weapons and has already produced one rudimentary nuclear device. It likely cannot miniaturise a nuclear weapon to mount on a missile and would need a significant amount of testing to master the technology, weapons experts say. And its Soviet-era bombers would not be able to evade the advanced air forces of the United States, Japan and South Korea to deliver a bomb, which means it may be many years before North Korea can actually threaten the world with a nuclear weapon.

HOW BIG IS THE SECURITY THREAT?

The North's nuclear arms programme is not a major security threat at present because it has not yet shown it can build an effective bomb, nor does it have an effective delivery system.

Results that show the explosive force of the current test should be known in the next few days, which will indicate if the country has improved its nuclear weapons technology.

The biggest security threats posed by the North come from its hundreds of mid-range missiles, which can hit all of South Korea and most of Japan, as well as its artillery batteries posted close to its border with the South. Jane's Defence estimated the North could rain 500,000 shells an hour into the Seoul area, which is home to about half of South Korea's 49 million people.

A North Korean first strike with artillery and rockets, which may also carry biological weapons or material to spread radiation poisoning, would cause major damage to economic powers South Korea and Japan, which in turn would deal a heavy blow to the global economy. It would also be a suicidal move, because the U.S.-led counter-strike would quickly destroy North Korea.

WHAT ARE NORTH KOREA'S NUCLEAR FACILITIES?

The heart of the North's nuclear arms programme is the Yongbyon nuclear plant, located about 100 km (60 miles) north of the capital Pyongyang. Its key facilities are a plant that makes nuclear fuel, an antiquated reactor that burns the fuel and a plant that separates plutonium from spent fuel. It has various clandestine facilities where it works on weapons designs and uranium enrichment, intelligence sources said.

WILL DIPLOMACY WORK TO END THE NORTH'S NUCLEAR PROGRAMME?

North Korea for years has used its military threat to squeeze concessions from global powers and experts doubt it will give up its biggest card while leader Kim Jong-il is in charge. For Kim, only nuclear weapons can give his small state real standing in the world. They also underpin his military-first policy in the face of what Pyongyang says is the threat of a U.S. invasion.

HOW BIG OF A THREAT IS PROLIFERATION?

The proliferation threat is real. The United States, under former President George W. Bush, suspected the North aided Syria in developing a nuclear programme.

Even though the North's nuclear arms programme is based on what experts consider outdated technology, cash-strapped North Korea has mastered the nuclear fuel cycle and could sell its nuclear expertise to states aiming to make plutonium for weapons.

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