The US’s top intelligence official has claimed that North Korea has expanded its uranium enrichment facility and restarted a plutonium reactor that could start recovering material for nuclear weapons in weeks or months.
In testimony to politicians on Capitol Hill, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, said North Korea had announced in 2013 its intention to refurbish and restart nuclear facilities, to include the uranium enrichment facility at Yongbyon and its plutonium production reactor, which was shut down in 2007.
“We assess that North Korea has followed through on its announcement by expanding its Yongbyon enrichment facility and restarting the plutonium production reactor,” said Mr Clapper, in an opening statement to the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Pyongyang announced in 2013 its intention to refurbish and restart nuclear facilities, to include the uranium enrichment facility at Yongbyon and its graphite-moderated plutonium production reactor, which was shut down in 2007.
"We assess that North Korea has followed through on its announcement by expanding its Yongbyon enrichment facility and restarting the plutonium production reactor," Mr Clapper said.
In pictures: North Korea hydrogen bomb test
In pictures: North Korea hydrogen bomb test
Officers from the Korea Meteorological Administration point at the epicenter of seismic waves in North Korea, at the National Earthquake and Volcano Center of the Korea Meteorological Administration in Seoul
Officers of the Korea Meteorological Administration check seismic waves that were measured in South Korean cities, at the Korea Meteorological Administration center in Seoul
A lab employee from the Korea Institute of Nuclear Safety's regional office in Gangneung, east of Seoul, checks for radioactive traces in the air, in Gangneung, soon after North Korea announced it successfully conducted a hydrogen bomb test. The office in Gangneung is the closest one to the site of the North's claimed test. Officials said it will take three to four days to analyze air samples in detail for any traces of radioactivity, the Yonhap news agency reported
South Korean President Park Geun-Hye (C) speaking as Foreign MInister Yun Byung-Se (2nd R) listens during an emergency meeting of the National Security Council at the presidential Blue House in Seoul, South Korea
North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un signing a document of a hydrogen bomb test in Pyongyang
People watch a TV news program showing North Korea's special announcement at the Seoul Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea
South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-Se (R) talks with US Ambassador to South Korea Mark Lippert (C) and US General Curtis Scaparrotti (L), Commander of the US Forces Korea, during their meeting following North Korea's hydrogen bomb test at the Foreign Ministry in Seoul. North Korea said it had carried out a "successful" miniaturised hydrogen bomb test - a shock announcement that, if confirmed, would massively raise the stakes in the hermit state's bid to strengthen its nuclear arsena
Hua Chunying, spokeswoman of China's foreign ministry, speaks at a regular press conference at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Beijing. China's foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying told reporters that China 'firmly opposes' the first hydrogen bomb test claimed by North Korea while maintaining that they did not have prior knowledge of the test
South Korean people watch TV news at Seoul station
Japan's meteorological agency officer Yohei Hasegawa displays a chart showing seismic activity, after a North Korean nuclear test, at the agency in Tokyo
Ko Yun-Hwa, administrator of Korea Meteorological Administration, briefs reporters showing seismic waves from the site of North Korea's hydrogen bomb test, at his office in Seoul
North Korea's border county of Kaepoong is seen from a South Korean observation post in Paju near the Demilitarized zone dividing the two Koreas as North Korea announced it had successfully carried out its first hydrogen bomb test
“We further assess that North Korea has been operating the reactor long enough so that it could begin to recover plutonium from the reactor's spent fuel within a matter of weeks to months.”
Last Sunday, North Korea on Sunday launched a rocket carrying an Earth observation satellite into space. The launch followed an underground nuclear explosion in January that North Korea claimed was the successful test of a “miniaturised” hydrogen bomb, thought many experts were skeptical.
Mr Clapper said North Korea was committed to developing a long-range, nuclear-armed missile that is capable of posing a direct threat to the United States, “although the system has not been flight-tested”.
The Associated Press reported that Mr Clapper’s assessment will deepen concern that North Korea is not only making technical advances in its nuclear weapons programme, following its recent underground test explosion and rocket launch, but is working to expand what is thought to be a small nuclear arsenal. US-based experts have estimated that North Korea may have about 10 bombs, but that could grow to between 20 and 100 by 2020.
The latest accusations levelled at North Korea came as Mr Clapper warned that Islamic militants and those inspired by Isis will continue to pose a threat to Americans at home and abroad. He said the US will continue to see cyber threats from China, Russia and North Korea.
“The perceived success of attacks by homegrown violent extremists in Europe and North America, such as those in Chattanooga and San Bernardino, might motivate others to replicate opportunistic attacks with little or no warning, diminishing our ability to detect terrorist operational planning and readiness,” he said.
“Isis involvement in homeland attack activity will probably continue to involve those who draw inspiration from the group's highly sophisticated media without direct guidance from ISIL leadership.”
Mr Clapper said Russia was “assuming a more assertive cyber posture” that is based on its willingness to target critical infrastructure and carry out espionage operations even when those operations have been detected and under increased public scrutiny.
He said Russia’s cyber operations are likely to target US interests in part to underpin its intelligence gathering to support Russia’s moves in the Ukraine and Syrian crises, he said.
On Isis, he said: "The perceived success of attacks by homegrown violent extremists in Europe and North America, such as those in Chattanooga and San Bernardino, might motivate others to replicate opportunistic attacks with little or no warning, diminishing our ability to detect terrorist operational planning and readiness.
"ISIL involvement in homeland attack activity will probably continue to involve those who draw inspiration from the group's highly sophisticated media without direct guidance from ISIL leadership," he added, using an acronym for the militant group.