North Korea's nuclear and missile technologies making rapid advances
BEIJING (AFP) Aug 24, 2003
North Korea already has at least one nuclear bomb and is striving to make many more, while the Communist state's scientists have made rapid progress on missile development, analysts say.

While most of the country's estimated 1.1 million armed forces are less sophisticated than the soldiers who went into battle in World War II, the country's missile and nuclear arms are generations ahead.

"This is a threat to South Korea, to Japan, but also a real threat to the world," US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said earlier this year, calling North Korea "the world's leading proliferator in missiles."

The major headache for North Korea is to combine its nuclear and missile technologies into a credible strike force, and that remains a work in progress, according to analysts.

North Korea's military capabilities are a top concern in capitals from Washington to Moscow, and are highlighted in six-party talks on the Korean nuclear crisis scheduled in Beijing from Wednesday.

The country's conventional troops are so poorly equipped -- their commanders are lucky to have pagers -- that they probably would be unable to move more than a few kilometers south in case of war on the peninsula.

The real problem is posed by the country's non-conventional abilities, especially in the nuclear field.

North Korea currently has one or two nuclear weapons, according to Central Intelligence Agency estimates from earlier this year.

This is matched by independent analysts reckoning that North Korea possesses sufficient weapons-grade plutonium to produce at least a couple of nuclear devices.

Meanwhile, the country's ballistic missile research is making rapid strides, possibly posing the first credible threat to the US mainland since the end of the Cold War.

The Taepodong-2 missile can "target parts of the US with a nuclear weapon-sized payload in the two-stage configuration," Vice Admiral Lowell Jacoby, director of the US Defense Intelligence Agency, has said.

All of North America could become a target if a third stage was used, Lowell said ominously.

The missile has a current range estimated at between 3,500 and 6,000 kilometers (2,190 and 3,750 miles), putting Hawaii and Alaska within reach.

Even before the ongoing nuclear crisis, North Korea's missile capability which is already feared by South Korea and Japan, was used as a prime justification for the US missile defense shield planned by the administration.

Pyongyang triggered global alarm when it tested an earlier incarnation of the missile, the Taepodong-1 over Japan in 1998.

The main obstacle on North Korea's path towards nuclear status may be in linking up its research on nuclear and missile technologies.

The nuclear bombs that the regime may already have are likely to be bulky, unwieldy things, possibly mounted on trucks or rail cars, or intended for delivery by easily-downed aircraft, analysts say.

If North Korea wants to bring the nuclear devices safely to their targets, they need to be smaller, so they can fit onto missiles.

However, building a mini-nuclear bomb is not a simple task, involving the material tritum, according to analysts.

It either requires very good connections or very good technology, and North Korea currently seems to have less of either than ever before.