SEOUL (Reuters) - North Korea said on Friday it was in the final stage of enriching uranium, a process that would give it a second path to making a nuclear weapon.
The following is a look at the destitute North’s decades-long pursuit of nuclear arms, which has been mostly based on plutonium:
The Yongbyon complex is at the heart of the North’s plutonium weapons programme. It consists of a 5-megawatt reactor, whose construction began in 1980, a fuel fabrication facility and a plutonium reprocessing plant, where weapons-grade material is extracted from spent fuel rods.
The site, about 100 km (60 miles) north of Pyongyang, also contains a 50-megawatt reactor whose construction was suspended under a 1994 nuclear deal with the United States. The reactor is nowhere near completion.
When fully operational, Yongbyon can produce enough fissile material for one nuclear bomb a year, experts have said.
U.S. officials said prior to the North’s May 25 nuclear test it had produced about 50 kg (110 lb) of plutonium, which proliferation experts said would be enough for six to eight nuclear weapons. It could eventually extract enough material from spent fuel rods cooling at Yongbyon to make one more bomb.
North Korea’s first nuclear test in October 2006 produced a relatively low yield in its explosive force, indicating problems with the bomb design or plutonium at its core, experts say.
The May 25 test was stronger but experts believe it may only be about one-fifth as powerful as the plutonium bomb the U.S. dropped on the Japanese city of Nagasaki in 1945 at the end of World War Two.
Even though it has exploded nuclear devices, North Korea has not shown that it has a working nuclear bomb.
Experts said they do not believe the North has the ability to miniaturise an atomic weapon to place on a missile but the secretive state has been trying to develop such a warhead. It needs more nuclear testing to build one.
Even if it had, they say, North Korea does not appear to have the technology to guide the missile to a target.
North Korea’s ageing fleet of Soviet-era bombers would also have difficulty evading the technologically advanced air forces of regional powers the United States, South Korea and Japan to deliver a nuclear bomb outside the country.
The U.S. has long suspected that the North has a secret programme to enrich uranium for weapons, giving it another path towards an atomic bomb. Experts said it has not developed anything near a full scale enrichment programme.
Such a programme can be conducted away from the prying eyes of U.S. spy satellites and the North can fuel it with the ample supplies of natural uranium it has in its territory.
Reporting by Jon Herskovitz