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Local experts doubt report on NK bolstering nuclear arsenal

North Korea cannot afford to be slapped with additional international sanctions over the development of nuclear weapons, experts here said Tuesday, following a media report that the country might have produced material for more atomic bombs in 2018.

Citing satellite-imagery analysis and leaked US intelligence, Bloomberg on Monday reported that Pyongyang has been strengthening its nuclear arsenal by churning out rockets and warheads as well as adding several intercontinental ballistic missiles and pursuing nuclear proliferation in the year since North Korean leader Kim Jong-un halted weapons tests.

In this June. 12, 2018, file photo, US President Donald Trump (right) meets with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un on Sentosa Island, in Singapore. (AP-Yonhap)
In this June. 12, 2018, file photo, US President Donald Trump (right) meets with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un on Sentosa Island, in Singapore. (AP-Yonhap)

The alleged expansion of the nuclear program is in stark contrast to Kim’s denuclearization pledges in his New Year’s address that North Korea had “declared at home and abroad that we would neither make and test nuclear weapons any longer nor use and proliferate them,” the report said.

The report came as Kim and US President Donald Trump are expected to hold a second summit in the coming months, following up on last year’s historic meeting in Singapore, where the two vowed to work toward “complete denuclearization” of the Korean Peninsula.

North Korea’s economy is already suffering from strict enforcement of international sanctions, and it would not take further action that would invite more sanctions, analysts said.

“Assertions that North Korea is bolstering its nuclear program, especially concerns that it will conduct another intercontinental ballistic missile test, are not taking into consideration the current economic situation of North Korea,” said Cheong Seong-chang, vice president of research planning at the Sejong Institute.

Another launch of an ICBM would lead the US to ban China’s delivery of refined oil products to North Korea, he said. Since 2018, the UN Security Council has capped the amount of refined petroleum products North Korea can import each year to 90 percent of the amount imported in the previous year, exacerbating fuel shortages in the country.

“It would be a blow to Kim if he turns out to have made false pledges to the international community in the verification process for denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” he said.

Kim’s promise indicates that North Korea will not make nuclear weapons “any longer” if conditions are met in talks with the Trump administration and that the country will keep the arsenal it has developed so far, said Cheon Seoung-whun, a research fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy studies.

“Many people believe that North Korea gave up on its nuclear program over economic development. But Pyongyang’s strategic line has been changed to the economy as it completes its nuclear weapon development,” Cheon said.

Doubts remain over the North Korean leader’s commitment to dismantling the country’s missile program because of his 2017 remarks that the country was ready to begin mass production of a new medium-range ballistic missile capable of reaching Japan and major US military bases.

But Pyongyang seems to be making preparations in case its negotiations with the US yield unsatisfying results, said Cha Du-hyeogn, a visiting scholar at Seoul’s Asan Institute for Policy Studies.

“North Korea wants to give the impression that it is capable of mass production. I don’t think it is in the stage of full-scale production. That would ruin negotiations. What the US gives North Korea will decide whether it will be mass production, a nuclear freeze or reduction,” Cha said.

By Park Han-na (
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