North Korea is continuing to develop nuclear weapons and will conduct additional underground blasts aimed at regional "intimidation," the commander of U.S. forces in South Korea said yesterday. "Unless the six-party talks process prevails, we expect North Korea to continue nuclear weapons research and development to perpetuate its strategy of intimidation," Army Gen. Burwell B. Bell told the Senate Armed Services Committee.
North Korea is continuing to produce plutonium from a reactor at Yongbyon and now has produced up to 110 pounds of the radioactive material, enough for several weapons, Gen. Bell said.
Its plutonium and uranium production "places it on track to become a moderate nuclear power, potentially by the end of the decade," he said.
By developing a small nuclear warhead, North Korea "could eventually field missiles capable of striking targets within the United States homeland with nuclear weapons," Gen. Bell said.
He also warned that North Korea's record of selling missiles and arms could lead the regime to "proliferate nuclear weapons technology, expertise or material to anti-American countries, rogue regimes or non-state actors." Both Gen. Bell and Adm. Timothy J. Keating, commander of the U.S. Pacific Command, told committee members they have doubts North Korea will follow through on its pledge to give up nuclear weapons.
"[North Korean leader] Kim Jong-il has a history of manipulating the international community in an attempt to shape the political and military environment to meet his objectives," Gen. Bell said.
Adm. Keating said the Pacific region remains peaceful, but the United States is closely watching China's military expansion and global outreach.
Asked by Sen. James H. Webb Jr., Virginia Democrat, about China's global expansion of bases and alliances, Adm. Keating said, "It is a concern of ours at Pacific Command." U.S. alliances and bases in Asia are designed to "provide an increasingly effective hedge against what may be actual Chinese expansionist policies or, more specifically, Chinese military intentions to move beyond, as you say, just the Taiwan Straits into a blue-water capacity," Adm. Keating said.
Adm. Keating said China's test of an anti-satellite missile in January likely was intended to show that it has arms that "could be used in a time of conflict to disable some military systems that would be important to us and others." He also said the encounter in October between a Chinese Song-class submarine and the USS Kitty Hawk aircraft carrier in the western Pacific showed "we must work to maintain our operational advantage in the face of fast-paced [Chinese navy] modernization and ever-expanding area of operations."