WASHINGTON – North Korea has restarted a plutonium reactor that could fuel a nuclear bomb and is seeking missile technology that could threaten the United States, Washington’s top spy said Tuesday.
In an annual threat assessment, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and senior military and intelligence officials singled out the authoritarian pariah state as a major and unpredictable menace.
Lt. Gen. Vincent Stewart, director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, joined Clapper to brief the Senate Armed Services Committee on the global dangers faced by U.S. planners.
“North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and evolving missile programs are a continuing threat,” he said.
Clapper said Kim Jong Un’s secretive Pyongyang regime continues to develop cyberespionage and cyberattack capabilities and has sold illegal weapons technology to other states.
Last month, the regime tested what it said was a hydrogen bomb, but — according to Clapper — U.S. intelligence believes “the yield was too low for it to have been successful test of a staged thermonuclear device.”
It was the North’s fourth nuclear test, and an apparent bid to expand its arsenal with a more destructive thermonuclear device.
Despite this apparent failure, North Korea has pressed on with its ballistic missile program and on Sunday launched a rocket into space, a move that Washington and Tokyo said was a banned weapons test.
“Pyongyang continues to produce fissile material and develop a submarine-launched ballistic missile,” Clapper told the lawmakers. “It is also committed to developing a long-range nuclear-armed missile that’s capable of posing a direct threat to the United States, although the system has not been flight-tested.”
Perhaps most worrying for the Americans is North Korea’s resumption of plutonium production — a sign it remains bent on producing a more powerful bomb despite international economic sanctions.
“We further assess that North Korea has been operating the reactor long enough so that it could begin to recover plutonium from the reactor’s spent fuel within a matter of weeks to months,” Clapper said.
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 (13 pounds) of plutonium a year — enough for one nuclear bomb, experts say.
Last month, the Institute for Science and International Security, Washington-based think tank, said satellite images suggest the reactor is operating only intermittently and at low capacity.
Stewart told the panel that North Korea had displayed a mobile intercontinental ballistic missile in a recent parade, launched two satellites into orbit and was testing a submarine-launched ballistic missile.
In response to the latest North Korean provocations, Washington plans to deploy the THAAD missile defense system to its ally South Korea and has been pushing the U.N. Security Council to impose new sanctions.
A draft sanctions resolution prepared by Japan, South Korea and the United States has been in negotiations for weeks, but veto-wielding China, the North’s key ally, has been reluctant to back measures that would damage North Korea’s already weak economy.
“I don’t think there’s any question that to the extent that anyone has leverage over North Korea, it’s China,” Clapper told the committee. The spy chief estimated that the otherwise impoverished state does 90 percent of its external trade with its giant neighbor, which buys around $1.2 billion in coal from Pyongyang every year.
“And then, of course, its illicit finance,” he said. “They have an organized approach to laundering money.”
China fears that pushing Pyongyang too far could trigger instability and unleash a wave of starving refugees across its border.
Beijing also worries that a wholesale collapse of the regime in Pyongyang could eventually lead to a U.S.-allied unified Korea on its doorstep.
The North is already subject to numerous U.N. sanctions over previous rocket launches and three nuclear tests, in 2006, 2009 and 2013.
It routinely insists the rocket launches are part of a legitimate space exploration program, but the United States and its allies view them as disguised ballistic missile tests.
North Korea could begin to recover plutonium from a restarted nuclear reactor within weeks, Clapper said on Tuesday.
He said that in 2013, following its third nuclear test, North Korea announced its intention to “refurbish and restart” facilities at its Nyongbyon nuclear complex to include the uranium-enrichment facility and the graphite-moderated plutonium production reactor, which had been shut down in 2007.
“We assess that North Korea has followed through on its announcement by expanding its Yongbyon enrichment facility and restarting the plutonium production reactor,” Clapper said in prepared testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee.
“We further assess that North Korea has been operating the reactor long enough so that it could begin to recover plutonium from the reactor’s spent fuel within a matter of weeks to months,” he said.
North Korea has used its graphite-moderated reactor at Nyongbyon as a source of plutonium for its atomic bombs.
North Korea said in September that Nyongbyon was operating and that it was working to improve the “quality and quantity” of weapons it could use against the United States at “any time.”
Clapper said North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile programs would “continue to pose a serious threat to U.S. interests and to the security environment in East Asia in 2016.”
He said North Korea had expanded the size and sophistication of its ballistic missile forces and was also “committed to developing a long-range, nuclear-armed missile that is capable of posing a direct threat to the United States.”
Clapper said Pyongyang had publicly displayed a road-mobile intercontinental ballistic missile on multiple occasions, and the U.S. assessment was that it had taken initial steps toward fielding the system, although it had not been flight-tested.