North Korea Has Completed Key Nuclear Weapons Process, Reports Say

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:13 PM EDT

Pacific Rim Bureau ( - North Korea has informed U.S. officials that it has completed reprocessing 8,000 spent fuel rods, an important step towards manufacturing nuclear weapons, South Korean and Japanese media reported at the weekend.

Experts have warned that once the reprocessing of the rods stored at the Yongbyon nuclear complex was done, the North Koreans would have in their possession sufficient plutonium to build about five atomic bombs within months.

The weekend reports cited a former South Korean lawmaker, now based at a U.S. university, who says a senior U.S. official told him the news of the development was given during North Korea-U.S. talks in New York last Tuesday.

On Monday, presidential advisor Ban Ki-moon told a meeting at South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun's office that Seoul had "no scientific evidence" to back claims that the fuel rods had all been processed.

Last week, South Korea's national intelligence service chief told lawmakers that North Korea was believed to have reprocessed a small number of the 8,000 fuel rods.

The rods were placed into storage under the same 1994 deal with the U.S. that saw a nuclear reactor, also at Yongbyon, mothballed. The complex was placed under U.N. atomic agency surveillance.

Late last year, however, the North Koreans removed U.N. seals and surveillance cameras from the monitored sites, kicked out on-site inspectors, and said it was restarting the reactor to generate power.

The North subsequently announced it was withdrawing from the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and took further steps which analysts said were aimed at increasing pressure on Washington.

Pyongyang insist on direct talks with the U.S., aimed at securing a non-aggression pact.

The U.S. says the dispute is an international one, and wants the U.N., as well as regional players like South Korea, Japan and China, involved in settling it.

Even before the current standoff began last October, the CIA believed the North had already produced "one or two" nuclear weapons, using plutonium from a 1989 extraction.

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow