North Korea may only have plutonium enough for two or three nuclear bombs, a senior South Korean official said Tuesday, challenging the communist North's recent indication it has already made several.
The assessment by Choi Young-jin, South Korea's vice foreign minister, came a week after his North Korean counterpart said the North has turned plutonium extracted from 8,000 spent nuclear fuel rods into weapons to serve as a deterrent against a possible U.S. nuclear strike.
North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Choe Su Hon's Sept. 27 claim was the first time the communist state has said it made nuclear weapons out of the spent fuel rods. Although Choe didn't clarify how many weapons were made, experts have said the rods could yield enough plutonium for eight bombs.
"We estimate that the North has plutonium that can produce two or three nuclear weapons," Choi said. He made the comment when a lawmaker asked for the government's official assessment of North Korea's nuclear capabilities.
While North Korea has shunned international talks aimed at ending its nuclear weapons ambitions, various estimates have been made of its nuclear capabilities.
On Thursday, Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry said North Korea possessed "four to seven" nuclear weapons.
But Charles Kartman — executive director of the New York-based Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization, or KEDO — said North Korea may have only a single nuclear weapon and there is no proof that it has actually produced any.
North Korea froze its plutonium-based nuclear weapons program under a 1994 accord with Washington. A new crisis erupted in 2002, when U.S. officials accused the country of running a secret nuclear program based on enriched uranium.
KEDO, an international consortium created under the 1994 deal, cut off oil supplies to the North. North Korea then withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and restarted its plutonium program.
North Korea has since said it completed reprocessing the 8,000 spent nuclear fuel rods and was using the plutonium to increase its "nuclear deterrent." Its claim could not be confirmed because all U.N. inspectors were expelled from the isolated country.
Three rounds of six-nation talks produced no breakthrough in efforts to dismantle North Korea's nuclear facilities. A fourth round failed to take place last month after North Korea refused to attend.
South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun, who is visiting India, said he was optimistic about resolving the problem.
"Because we are all working to bring about a peaceful resolution, before long we will come to a peaceful settlement," Press Trust of India news agency quoted Roh as saying.
In Seoul, former South Korean President Kim Dae-jung, a Nobel Peace Prize winner, said North Korea must give up its nuclear weapons development and the United States should guarantee the North's security.
Whether it numbers one, three or seven bombs, North Korea's nuclear arsenal is dwarfed by even the least-armed nuclear state.
According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, India and Pakistan have between 25 and 50 warheads each. Israel, which does not say whether it does or does not possess nuclear arms, is estimated to have about 100 warheads.
Britain has 200, France 350, China 400, Russia 8,600 and the United States more than 10,000.
North Korea has justified its push for nuclear weapons — which some see as a bluff, put forward to elicit more aid from the West — by citing the U.S. policy of preemptive war, its membership in President Bush's "axis of evil" and a new U.S. nuclear doctrine that names North Korea as a potential target.