A new report says North Korea is probably able to mount a nuclear weapon on missiles it already has. The scope and intentions of North Korea's weapons programs are a matter of governmental ambiguity in South Korea, where senior officials are getting ready for a high-level meeting in Pyongyang next week. VOA's Kurt Achin has more from Seoul.
The Institute for Science and International Security, a Washington research organization, says Pyongyang probably has all the technology it needs to mount "a crude nuclear weapon" on its missiles.
North Korea has invested massively in missile technology over the past two decades, the staple of which is its Nodong line of missiles. The institute's report, released Wednesday, says Pyongyang probably received designs for mounting a nuclear warhead on a missile from the network of Pakistani nuclear engineer A.Q. Khan during the 1990s.
Kim Taewoo is a nuclear weapons and ballistic missile specialist at Seoul's Korea Institute for Defense Analyses. He agrees it is theoretically possible for the North to launch a nuclear missile.
Kim says although he thinks Pyongyang would never launch a nuclear strike under normal circumstances, it probably has contingency plans for a nuclear attack against South Korea or Japan in a crisis - such as if the North's communist regime appeared to be collapsing.
The North tested at least seven missiles in July, including a long-range rocket at least theoretically capable of reaching the United States. It tested its first nuclear weapon three months later.
Those two tests led South Korea to suspend high-level contacts with the North and to halt emergency food and fertilizer aid to its impoverished neighbor.
However, shortly after recent multinational talks in Beijing yielded an agreement aimed at ending the North's nuclear weapons programs, Seoul and Pyongyang scheduled new high-level meetings. The first phase of the nuclear agreement promises Pyongyang oil if it shuts its main plutonium producing facility.
North Korea will receive more benefits in a second phase if it fully declares all the nuclear materials and programs it has. Washington says Pyongyang must address U.S. evidence of a secret uranium-based program, which North Korea has never publicly admitted.
South Korea, which avoids directly confronting the North in the interest of stability on the peninsula, has not publicly backed the U.S. reports about a uranium program. Foreign Minister Song Min-soon played down questions about the uranium program Wednesday. He says it is not appropriate to comment about what stage such a program might have reached. However, he says North Korea will be expected to dismantle all of its nuclear programs.
The two countries will hold ministerial-level meetings next week in Pyongyang. One of South Korea's top priorities is expected to be the resumption of aid to ease what officials fear may be a destabilizing food shortage in the North.