North Korea Able to Test Nukes in Two Weeks, Study Says

North Korea is technically capable of conducting a nuclear test in as little as two weeks, according to a study published by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

Commercial satellite imagery shows an underground tunnel has been prepared for containing a nuclear explosion near the sites used for the regime’s two earlier tests in 2006 and 2009, according to the study written by Siegfried Hecker, a scholar on North Korea’s nuclear program at Stanford University in California, and Frank Pabian, a geospatial information analyst at the Los Alamos National Laboratory.

A third test would be the first authorized by new North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, who took power after the death of his father in December. A demonstration of the country’s nuclear capability would raise tensions on the Korean Peninsula at the same time the U.S. and Israel are threatening possible military action to thwart Iran’s advances toward being able to produce its first atomic weapon.

South Korea said in April that the North may conduct a nuclear test to bolster public support at home after the failure of a long-range missile launch. While North Korea in May denied immediate plans for a nuclear test, it said two months later that it is reviewing its nuclear capabilities against South Korean and U.S. threats.

“We cannot rule out the possibility that the technological and military benefits may sway Pyongyang to test again,” the scientists wrote. Hecker has visited North Korea to assess its nuclear program, although the study is based on commercial satellite imagery and other publicly available information.

Two Explosions?

The Unification Ministry in Seoul declined to comment on the report’s findings and on whether it spotted any recent nuclear weapons developments, spokeswoman Park Soo Jin told reporters yesterday.

The underground tunnel that would be used in a new nuclear test “apparently has been under construction since 2009 and significant activity was reported at the tunnel site after the failed April space launch,” the authors said.

The scientists also raise the possibility that North Korea would conduct two detonations simultaneously, with one bomb made from plutonium, as in previous tests, and the other made from highly enriched uranium.

“Two detonations will yield much more technical information than one, and they will be no more damaging politically than if North Korea conducted a single test,” the report found.

Circumstantial Evidence

Still, evidence of North Korea possessing highly enriched uranium “is only circumstantial,” the scientists wrote.

The North Korean regime disclosed a uranium enrichment plant in November 2010, theoretically providing it with a second means to create nuclear weapons, in addition to plutonium.

The scientists said a new test “would greatly increase the likelihood that Pyongyang could fashion warheads to fit at least some of its missiles -- a circumstance that would vastly increase the threat its nuclear program poses to the security of Northeast Asia.”

While Kim weighs the political costs of a nuclear test, “it is imperative for Washington, Beijing and their partners in the six-party talks to join forces to increase the costs on North Korea of continued testing,” Hecker and Pabian wrote.

The talks involving China, Japan, Russia, the U.S. and the two Koreas began in 2003 and haven’t resumed since 2008.

The Group of Eight world leaders warned in a statement following their May summit that North Korea will face additional international sanctions from the United Nations Security Council if it takes provocative actions such as proceeding with a nuclear test.

The U.S. has publicly sought to deter North Korea from testing. “We are concerned about any potential for provocative action taken by North Korea,” Defense Department spokesman George Little told reporters last month at the Pentagon.

To contact the reporter on this story: David Lerman in Washington at dlerman1@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: John Walcott at jwalcott9@bloomberg.net

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