China’s top nuclear experts have increased their estimates of North Korea’s nuclear weapons production well beyond most previous U.S. figures, suggesting Pyongyang can make enough warheads to threaten regional security for the U.S. and its allies.
The latest Chinese estimates, relayed in a closed-door meeting with U.S. nuclear specialists, showed that North Korea may already have 20 warheads, as well as the capability of producing enough weapons-grade uranium to double its arsenal by next year, according to people briefed on the matter.
Adm. William Gortney, head of U.S. Northern Command, said this month that defense officials believe North Korea can now mount a nuclear warhead on an intercontinental ballistic missile called the KN-08. U.S. officials don’t believe the missile has been tested, but experts estimate it has a range of about 5,600 miles —within reach of the western edge of the continental U.S., including California.
The latest Chinese estimates of North Korea’s nuclear capability were shared during a February meeting at the China Institute of International Studies, the Chinese foreign ministry’s think tank. The estimate that North Korea may have had 20 warheads at the end of last year—and could build 20 more by 2016—was given during a presentation by one of China’s top uranium enrichment experts, according to people familiar with the meeting. They said it was the first time they had heard such a high Chinese estimate.
[The Wall Street Journal]