North Korea 'restarts plutonium reactor' - and could have stockpiles within weeks, says US spy chief

The country sparked condemnation after claiming it had successfully detonated an H-bomb in January

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. 

 

 

 

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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.

“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.

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