North Korea will have plutonium 'in weeks', warns US intelligence chief
North Korea has expanded a uranium enrichment facility and restarted a plutonium reactor that could start recovering material for nuclear weapons in weeks or months.
The US intelligence chief James Clapper made the announcement last night in delivering the annual assessment by intelligence agencies of the top dangers facing the country.
He also said Islamic militants and those inspired by Isil will continue to pose a threat to Americans at home and abroad; al-Qa'ida remains an enemy; and the US will continue to see cyber threats from China, Russia and North Korea.
US Director of National Intelligence Mr Clapper said that Pyongyang announced in 2013 its intention to refurbish and restart nuclear facilities, to include the uranium enrichment facility at Yongbyon and its plutonium production reactor, which was shut down in 2007. Clapper said US intelligence had assessed that North Korea has expanded Yongbyon and restarted the plutonium production reactor there.
Mr Clapper also told the Senate Armed Services Committee that North Korea has been operating the reactor long enough that it could begin to recover plutonium "within a matter of weeks to months".
Both findings will deepen concern that North Korea is not only making technical advances in its nuclear weapons programme, following its recent underground test explosion and rocket launch, but is working to expand what is thought to be a small nuclear arsenal. US-based experts have estimated that North Korea may have about 10 bombs, but that could grow to between 20 and 100 by 2020.
North Korea on Sunday launched a rocket carrying an observation satellite into space.
The launch followed a January 6 underground nuclear explosion that North Korea claimed was the successful test of a "miniaturised" hydrogen bomb.
Many outside experts were sceptical and Mr Clapper said the low yield of the test "is not consistent with a successful test of a thermonuclear device".
Mr Clapper said that Pyongyang is also committed to developing a long-range, nuclear-armed missile that is capable of posing a direct threat to the United States, "although the system has not been flight-tested".
Islamic militants, Mr Clapper said, will continue plotting against US interests overseas and homegrown attacks will pose the most significant threat from violent extremists to Americans at home.
"The perceived success of attacks by homegrown violent extremists in Europe and North America, such as those in Chattanooga and San Bernardino, might motivate others to replicate opportunistic attacks with little or no warning, diminishing our ability to detect terrorist operational planning and readiness," he said.
Mr Clapper said US information systems, controlled by the US government and American industry, are vulnerable to cyber attacks from Russia and China. North Korea "probably remains capable and willing to launch disruptive or destructive cyber attacks to support its political objectives," he said.
Mr Clapper also said Moscow's incursion in Ukraine and other "aggressive" moves around the globe are being done in part to demonstrate that it is a superpower equal to the United States. He said he is unsure of Russia's end game but is concerned "we could be into another Cold War-like spiral".