North Korea could start gathering plutonium from a restarted reactor “within weeks,” providing Pyongyang with more fuel for nuclear weapons, the top. U.S. intelligence official warned lawmakers.
Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said Tuesday North Korea has made good on earlier threats to expand its Yongbyon uranium enrichment facility as well as its graphite-moderated plutonium production reactor.
“We further assess 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,” he added in prepared testimony.
The facilities had initially been shut down in 2007 but Pyongyang vowed to restart the reactor following its third nuclear test on 2013.
And despite doubts North Korea was able to successfully test what it called a miniaturized hydrogen bomb in January, Clapper told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee the country's activities remain a concern.
“Pyongyang continues to produce fissile material and develop a submarine launched ballistic missile,” he said. “It is also committed to developing a long-range nuclear armed missile that’s capable of posing a direct threat to the United States, although the system has not been flight tested.”
The conclusions, part of the U.S. intelligence community’s annual “Worldwide Threat Assessment,” come just two days after North Korea launched a rocket carrying an Earth observation satellite into space, drawing more condemnation from the world community.
U.S. President Barack Obama spoke with South Korean President Park Geun-hye Monday night about the latest launch and the two leaders agreed it "represents yet another destabilizing and provocative action," according to the White House.
Both leaders also said the launch violated several United Nations Security Council resolutions aimed at curbing North Korea's nuclear ambitions.
The new U.S. assessment states North Korea is likely using its nuclear program for “deterrence, international prestige and coercive diplomacy.”
It also warns North Korea "probably remains capable and willing to launch disruptive or destructive cyberattacks to support its political objectives."
The U.S. report said that since assuming power four years ago, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un "has further solidified his position as the unitary leader and final decision authority through purges, executions, and leadership shuffles."
It said that Kim "continues to challenge the international community with provocative and threatening behavior in pursuit of his goals, as prominently demonstrated in the November 2014 cyberattack on Sony, the August 2015 inter-Korean confrontation spurred by the North’s placement of landmines that injured two South Korean soldiers, and the fourth nuclear test" last month.