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Former Intelligence Chief: N. Korea Could Sell Nuclear Materials

FILE - A South Korean army soldier walks by a TV screen showing North Korean leader Kim Jong Un with superimposed letters that read: "North Korea's nuclear warhead" during a news program at Seoul Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea, March 9, 2016.

While North Korea’s recent claim that it has miniaturized nuclear warheads drew skepticism in the United States, there is growing concern in Washington that Pyongyang could transfer nuclear technology or materials to other countries.

Analysts say there may be mixed assessments of how advanced Pyongyang’s nuclear program is, but there appears to be little doubt that the country is expanding its nuclear stockpile. Nuclear experts at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies estimate that North Korea currently has between 10 and 16 nuclear weapons and it could possess as many as 100 weapons by 2020.

Leon Panetta, a former CIA director and former U.S. defense secretary, said Pyongyang’s nuclear transfer is a “very real concern.”

“What happened with a nuclear reactor that was built in Syria was largely done through technology from North Korea,” Panetta told VOA this week, referring to a secret nuclear reactor in Syria bombed by Israel in 2007.

Proliferation concern

Former Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair warned Pyongyang could be more tempted to sell its nuclear materials or technology to earn cash amid increased sanctions. Last week, the U.N. Security Council adopted a new resolution expanding sanctions against North Korea in response to Pyongyang’s recent nuclear test and long-range missile launch.

“I think they have more motivation now to increase their supply of hard currency any way they can, and the sale of nuclear materials, precursor materials or parts of weapons is certainly a possibility that has occurred to them,” Blair told VOA Thursday.

Given the danger such an attempt could pose, Pyongyang will face “military consequences” if it tried to sell nuclear materials, the retired Navy admiral said.

In an apparent response to the sanctions, Pyongyang has ramped up nuclear rhetoric. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said his country has nuclear warheads to mount on ballistic missiles, according to the North’s state media on Wednesday.

FILE - A man watches a TV news program showing file footage of missile launch conducted by North Korea, at Seoul Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea, March 3, 2016.
FILE - A man watches a TV news program showing file footage of missile launch conducted by North Korea, at Seoul Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea, March 3, 2016.

“The nuclear warheads have been standardized to be fit for ballistic missiles by miniaturizing them,” the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) quoted Kim as saying.

State media repeatedly made that claim, but Kim’s comments marked his first mention of the claim.

Blair said it is uncertain if Pyongyang has such a capability, adding “it’s a logical next step” in the country’s nuclear development program.

Nuclear ICBM

U.S. military analysts say Washington’s primary concern is whether Pyongyang has the capability to fire an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) that could reach the U.S. mainland.

Admiral William Gortney, commander of the U.S. Northern Command, told a Senate committee Thursday it was “prudent” to assume Pyongyang had the ability to miniaturize a nuclear warhead and mount it on an ICBM that could reach the U.S.

U.S. officials say Pyongyang has not demonstrated the capability.

Blair said there is little chance that North Korea will use a nuclear weapon against the U.S. or its allies, even if Pyongyang had such a capability.

“The retaliation would devastate North Korea and it would be end of this regime,” he said.

On Friday, KCNA said Kim ordered his country to conduct more nuclear tests.

Brent Choi contributed to this report, which was produced in collaboration with VOA Korean Service.