WASHINGTON – North Korea’s recently launched satellite has stopped spinning and is now in a stable orbit but is not believed to have transmitted data, U.S. sources said of a launch that has so far failed to convince experts that Pyongyang has significantly advanced its rocket technology.
Sunday’s launch of what North Korea said was an earth observation satellite angered the country’s neighbors and the United States, which called it a missile test. It followed Pyongyang’s fourth nuclear test in January.
“It’s in a stable orbit now. They got the tumbling under control,” a U.S. official said on Tuesday.
That is unlike the North’s previous satellite, launched in 2012, which never stabilized, the official said. However, the new satellite was not thought to be transmitting, another source added.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein, who has access to classified material from American intelligence agencies, told a congressional hearing Tuesday that North could have an arsenal of up to 20 nuclear bombs using uranium and plutonium.
“We know they possess anywhere from 10 to 20 both uranium and plutonium weapons,” the Democratic senator told a hearing of the Select Committee on Intelligence, possibly referring to the latest estimate by the U.S. government on the state of Pyongyang’s nuclear programs.
A group of American experts on North Korea estimated a year ago that the country may have up to 16 nuclear weapons.
Separately, U.S. National Intelligence Director James Clapper said the same day that North Korea could begin to recover plutonium from a restarted nuclear reactor within weeks.
Clapper said that in 2013, following its third nuclear test, the North had announced its intention to “refurbish and restart” facilities at its Nyongbyon nuclear complex.
“We assess that North Korea has followed through on its announcement by expanding its Nyongbyon enrichment facility and restarting the plutonium production reactor,” Clapper said in prepared testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee.
North Korea mothballed the Nyongbyon reactor in 2007 under an aid-for-disarmament accord but began renovating it after its third nuclear test in 2013.
When fully operational, the reactor is capable of producing around 6 kg of plutonium a year — enough for one nuclear bomb, experts say.
U.S. President Barack Obama was to address North Korea’s “provocations” when he hosts the leaders of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in California early next week, aides said.
The U.N. Security Council has imposed sanctions against North Korea for its nuclear tests and long-range rocket launches dating back to 2006, banning arms trade and money flow that can fund the country’s arms program.
But a confidential U.N. report, seen by Reuters, concluded that North Korea continues to export ballistic-missile technology to the Middle East and ship arms and materiel to Africa in violation of U.N. restrictions.
The report by the U.N. Security Council’s Panel of Experts on North Korea, which monitors implementation of sanctions, said there were “serious questions about the efficacy of the current United Nations sanctions regime.”
Western diplomats said that restricting North Korean access to international ports is among the measures Washington is pushing Beijing to accept in the wake of the Jan. 6 nuclear test and the weekend rocket launch.
Missile experts say North Korea appears to have repeated its earlier success in putting an object into space, rather than broken new ground. It used a nearly identical design to the 2012 launch and is probably years away from building a long-range nuclear missile, the experts said.
Vice Adm. James Syring, director of the U.S. Missile Defense Agency, told reporters that North Korea’s launch was “provocative, disturbing and alarming,” but could not be equated with a test of an intercontinental ballistic missile.
He said North Korea had never attempted to flight test the KN-08 intercontinental ballistic missile it is developing.
Syring said U.S. missile defenses would be able to defend against the new North Korean missile given efforts to improve the reliability of the U.S. system and increase in the number of ground-based U.S. interceptors from 30 to 44.
“I’m very confident that we’re, one, ahead of it today, and that the funded improvements will keep us ahead of . . . where it may be by 2020,” he said.