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North made at least 10 more nukes last year

June 18,2019
North Korea increased its nuclear arsenal by at least 10 more weapons since last year, according to a study by a Sweden-based arms control think tank released Monday, despite ongoing denuclearization negotiations between Pyongyang and Washington.

The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (Sipri) found in its latest study that North Korea in 2018 possessed 10 to 20 nuclear warheads, and this number increased to 20 to 30 by January of this year.

The Sipri Yearbook 2019 found that North Korea continues to prioritize its nuclear program “as a central element of its national security strategy,” despite announcing last year “a moratorium on the testing of nuclear weapons as well as medium- and long-range ballistic missile delivery systems.”

The study assessed the current state of armament, disarmament and international security. This marks the 50th edition of the Sipri Yearbook.

U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un went from exchanging threats of nuclear war at the beginning of 2018 to holding their first historic summit half a year later on June 12 in Singapore.

This moratorium on testing was in the spirit of the ongoing denuclearization negotiations between North Korea and the United States.

In turn, Washington also downsized or suspended its major military exercises with Seoul.

According to a summary of the report, at the start of this year, nine states - the United States, Russia, Britain, France, China, India, Pakistan, Israel and North Korea - possessed approximately 13,865 nuclear weapons. Of these, 3,750 weapons were deployed with operational forces.

This marked a decrease from a total of some 14,465 nuclear weapons that Sipri estimated these countries possessed at the beginning of 2018.

The United States possessed at the beginning of 2019 an estimated total of 6,185 nuclear warheads, down from 6,450 last year. Russia possessed 6,500 nuclear warheads this year, down from 6,850 in 2018. Sipri notes that figures for North Korea are uncertain.

Sipri found that global trends in international stability were “broadly negative” last year with a few exceptions, “notably in detente on the Korean Peninsula” and U.S. diplomacy with North Korea that led to “a vague road map for moving forward on denuclearization.”

The “renewed diplomatic engagement” came amid the United States’ demand that North Korea “verifiably abandon” its nuclear and ballistic missile programs.

“As part of the easing of political and military tensions during the year,” it added, “North Korea announced that it had suspended the testing of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles and had destroyed its nuclear weapon test site.” This referred to the demolition of North Korea’s Punggye-ri nuclear test site in late May 2018, ahead of the first North-U.S. summit.

North Korea in May conducted two short-range missile tests, but Trump downplayed the tests because they were not long-range ballistic missiles.

In its analysis of global stockpiles of fissile material last year, Sipri noted that North Korea produced plutonium for use in nuclear weapons but may have produced highly-enriched uranium as well. The 2018 edition of the yearbook found that North Korea “has joined the ranks of nuclear weapon-possessing states, despite major international efforts to prevent it.” It had called Northeast Asia “one of the world’s most militarized regions” namely because of the North’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles program. North Korea conducted its sixth nuclear test in September 2017.

North Korea could have around 100 warheads by 2020 at its current rate of production, Robert S. Litwak, a senior vice president of the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, told NBC News last December. This would be almost half the size of Britain’s stockpile.

The New York Times in March reported U.S. intelligence estimated that North Korea produced enough uranium and plutonium to fuel half-dozen new nuclear warheads in the months between Kim and Trump’s first Singapore summit in June 2018 and their second in Hanoi this February.

In Kim Jong-un’s New Year’s address at the start of the year, the North Korean leader declared, “We would neither make and test nuclear weapons any longer nor use and proliferate them, and we have taken various practical measures.”

Jan Eliasson, a Sipri governing board chair ambassador and a former deputy secretary general of the United Nations, said in a statement Monday that despite an overall decrease in the number of nuclear warheads last year, “all nuclear weapon-possessing states continue to modernize their nuclear arsenals.”

BY SARAH KIM [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]