N.Korea could launch a nuclear-weapon strike, South says


SEOUL — North Korea has the ability to “weaponize” its nuclear technology and put a warhead on a missile, the South Korean Defense Ministry said, contradicting the U.S. position that the country is years away from gaining the technology.

The report presented to lawmakers Tuesday said the North can turn its nuclear devices into weapons at any time. After details of the study became public, the ministry toned down the findings, saying in a statement that the report meant that the possibility of a North Korean ballistic missile being paired with a nuclear warhead was “high.”

“The report is an acknowledgment that the North has the capability to put nuclear bombs on at least short-range missiles,” Yang Uk, a senior researcher at Seoul’s Korea Defense and Security Forum think tank, said.

North Korea threatened first strikes against South Korea and the U.S. in March after a February nuclear test prompted tightened UN sanctions against the Kim Jong Un regime. President Barack Obama, who has called on North Korea to renounce its nuclear program, said in April the country didn’t have the ability to launch an atomic weapon on a missile.

Yang questioned whether the North can tip a long-range missile with a nuclear warhead. Last December, North Korea succeeded in launching a rocket to put a satellite in space for the first time. The U.S. and South Korea called the event a test of long-range missile technology in violation of UN Security Council resolutions.

The North routinely tests short-range missiles. It claimed in February, after its third nuclear test, that it had succeeded in making its nuclear bombs smaller and lighter.

The U.S. Forces Korea didn’t immediately respond on the report. Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera said Tuesday the North continues to advance its nuclear arms programs.

“Their capability has improved considerably with each of the three nuclear tests,” he said.

In April, North Korea said it would restart all its nuclear facilities at Yongbyon just north of Pyongyang. In early August, the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security, citing satellite images taken July 28, said that the North might have doubled the size of its uranium enrichment facility.

North Korea ratcheted down tensions with the South last month when it agreed to reopen an industrial complex jointly run with South Korea. That park was shuttered in April after the stricter sanctions of its nuclear program and during joint South Korean-U.S. military drills. The North has since agreed to resume the reunions of families separated by the Korean War.

The North’s relations with the U.S. have yet to show improvement. Citing annual U.S.-South Korean defense drills, the North withdrew its invitation on Aug. 30 to a U.S. envoy seeking the release of an American sentenced to 15 years of hard labor in North Korea.