North Korea is likely able to mount nuclear warheads on its missiles, a panel of experts concluded in a report to the U.N. Security Council. File Photo by Jeon Heon-kyun/EPA-EFE
SEOUL, April 1 (UPI) -- A report from a United Nations panel of experts found that North Korea has continued to fund its weapons program through illicit means such as smuggling and cyberattacks and concluded that the secretive state can probably arm its ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads.
"[I]t is highly likely that a nuclear device can be mounted on the intercontinental ballistic missiles, and it is also likely that a nuclear device can be mounted on the medium-range ballistic missiles and short-range ballistic missiles," the report, released Wednesday, said.
However, the report said it remains uncertain whether North Korea "had developed ballistic missiles resistant to the heat generated during re-entry."
The report was created by a panel of experts under the U.N. Security Council sanctions committee on North Korea.
Despite sanctions, an economic downturn caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and a series of natural disasters, North Korea was able to upgrade its weapons and defense systems in 2020.
North Korea "has not only continued to develop and modernize its ballistic missile program but has also increased its nuclear strike capability, as well as its ability to counter foreign missile defense systems while safeguarding itself with its own new air defense system," the report said.
The U.N. panel assessed that North Korea's 5 MWe reactor at its Yongbyon nuclear research center is capable of producing around 7 kilograms of plutonium per year and added that the country may possess 60 kilograms of the radioactive chemical element.
There have been no signs of the reactor operating since 2018, although other activity at the Yongbyon facility has been recently taking place, according to satellite imagery.
North Korea has supported its weapons development through illicit activities such as importing oil in violation of international sanctions and stealing cryptocurrency through cyberattacks.
Pyongyang stole more than $316 million worth of virtual assets from 2019 to November 2020, the report said. The panel of experts cited the BeagleBoyz, a hacker group inside Pyongyang's Reconnaissance General Bureau intelligence unit, as responsible for several cyberattacks on cryptocurrency exchanges and financial institutions.
The country has also defied international sanctions and "continued illicit import of refined petroleum, via direct deliveries and ship-to-ship transfers, using elaborate subterfuge," the report said. It concluded that the shipments from January to September 2020 exceeded the annual 500,000-barrel cap "by several times."
North Korea hasn't conducted any long-range missile or nuclear tests since 2017, but it launched a pair of short-range ballistic missiles into the sea near Japan last week, violating U.N. sanctions.