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South Korean Military Chief Says North Seeks Nuclear Warhead


South Korean military officials say they believe North Korea is hoping to develop a nuclear weapon that can be delivered by missile. The unusually frank public statement was made amid reports North Korea has conducted a routine test of its short range missiles along its western coast. VOA's Kurt Achin reports from Seoul.

South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman, Kim Tae-young, says he believes North Korea is trying to produce a nuclear warhead small enough to be carried on a missile.

Kim made the comment Wednesday in a parliamentary hearing. Such a direct statement is rare, because senior South Korean officials usually keep quiet about North Korean security matters in public. Kim added, he believes North Korea has enough plutonium to produce as many as seven nuclear weapons.

Despite being impoverished, North Korea has invested heavily for decades in ballistic missile technology. It has hundreds of short and medium range missiles capable of reaching all of South Korea and most of Japan. North Korea test-fired a medium range missile directly over Japanese territory in 1998. In 2006 - just months before it tested a nuclear explosive underground - the North conducted a failed test of a long range missile hypothetically capable of reaching the United States.

South Korean media quoted Seoul defense officials Wednesday as saying the North has conducted a test firing of at least two short range missiles. The missiles were apparently fired Tuesday afternoon off North Korea's western coast.

South Korean Unification Ministry Spokesman Kim Ho-nyoun did not confirm the launch Wednesday, but said the test was probably not cause for alarm.

He says if it was in fact short range missiles North Korea launched, it is probably part of a routine drill. He says North Korea is known to conduct two sets of routine missile tests each year.

Even small military movements by North Korea attract attention here in the South - perhaps especially at this point in time. It remains unconfirmed whether leader Kim Jong Il, believed to be recovering from a stroke, is actually in control of the country. Pyongyang threatened earlier this month to resume reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel into material useable in weapons. And, this week marks several key anniversaries in the North - including that of the country's communist-party founding, and of its nuclear test two years ago.

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