SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — North Korea's vow to restart its mothballed nuclear facilities raises fears about assembly lines churning out fuel for a fearsome arsenal of nuclear missiles. But it may actually be a sign that Pyongyang needs a lot more bomb fuel to back up its nuclear threats.
Despite the bluster, it could be years before North Korea completes the laborious process of creating more weaponized fuel. Its announcement, experts say, is also likely an effort to boost fears meant to keep its leadership safe while trying to extract concessions from the U.S. and its allies.
North Korea has declared itself a nuclear power and threatened to expand its atomic arsenal after its third nuclear test in February sparked the recent rise in hostility on the Korean Peninsula. But that arsenal is estimated to be only a handful of crude devices.
To assemble a cache of weapons that would make it a true nuclear power, and to back up its threats, North Korean scientists need more bomb fuel — both for the weapons they hope to build and for the repeated tests required to perfect those weapons.
"Despite its recent threats, North Korea does not yet have much of a nuclear arsenal because it lacks fissile materials and has limited nuclear testing experience," Siegfried Hecker, a nuclear scientist who has been regularly granted unusual access to the North's nuclear facilities, said this week in answers posted to the website of Stanford University's Center for International Security and Cooperation.
North Korea nuclear capabilities are something of a mystery.
What is known is that it possesses the ability to produce both fuels that can be used to make nuclear bombs — plutonium and uranium.
This causes serious long-term worries following North Korea's announcement Tuesday that it is "readjusting and restarting" all facilities at its main Nyongbyon nuclear complex, including a plutonium reactor shut down six years ago as part of now-failed nuclear negotiations, and a uranium enrichment plant.