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(2nd LD) N. Korea claims it succeeded in nuclear fusion

All Headlines 14:00 May 12, 2010

(ATTN: ADDS comments from analysts, background throughout)
By Sam Kim and Byun Duk-kun

SEOUL, May 12 (Yonhap) -- North Korea said Wednesday it succeeded in producing a nuclear fusion reaction, a claim that appeared to be aimed at increasing its bargaining power before the communist state rejoins stalled six-nation talks on its nuclear ambitions.

Fusion reaction results in a thermonuclear explosion, such as one generated by a hydrogen bomb, which is far more powerful than a fission atomic device. Experts, however, say practical energy creation from fusion is decades away.

"The successful nuclear fusion marks a great event that demonstrated the rapidly developing cutting-edge science and technology" of North Korea, the Rodong Sinmum, the newspaper of its ruling party, said in a report seen in Seoul.

The paper described the nuclear fusion technology as useful for "obtaining safe and environment-friendly new energy," but did not refer to its military implications.

A South Korean Foreign Ministry official, speaking on the customary condition of anonymity, told reporters the North Korean announcement is "absurd" considering a lack of intelligence indicating Pyongyang is capable of such a costly project.

Experts said Pyongyang appears to be trying to expand its bargaining power ahead of the possible resumption of six-nation aid-for-denuclearization talks, stalled since late 2008.

"The North may demand it be allowed to retain its presumed nuclear fusion technology when it is pressed to abandon its existing plutonium-based atomic weapons," Lee Jung-chul, a North Korea specialist at Soongsil University in Seoul, said.

"The technology can be a way for the North to also reserve an option to newly develop bombs after it is denuclearized through the talks," he said.

Fission generates energy by splitting the atom. In fusion, atoms are fused together, creating surplus energy as they combine and leaving little radioactive residue.

"The North is diversifying its nuclear arsenal and boosting its efforts to strengthen its war deterrent," Baek Seung-joo, a researcher from the Korea Institute for Defense Analyses, said.

North Korea claimed in September last year that its uranium enrichment program -- a second track to building nuclear arms in addition to plutonium-based ones -- entered a "completion phase."

North Korea has conducted two nuclear tests since 2006, the latest one in May 2009. It is widely believed to possess several plutonium-based bombs, but analysts doubt that it has the technology to mount them on long-range missiles.

In his meeting with Chinese President Hu Jintao last week in Beijing, North Korean leader Kim Jong-il pledged to create "favorable conditions" for the resumption of the six-party talks.

His comments raised the prospect for the resumption of negotiations that involve the two Koreas, the United States, Japan, Russia and host China.

South Korea and the U.S., however, maintain they will not agree to it until a probe into the deadly March 26 sinking of a South Korean warship near the border with North Korea ends.

"North Korea is trying to consolidate its self-proclaimed image as a nuclear state with its latest claim," Yang Moo-jin, a professor at the North Korean studies in Seoul, said.

As a condition of rejoining the six-nation talks, Pyongyang has insisted on the lifting of U.N. sanctions against it and the signing of a peace treaty to replace the armistice that ended the 1950-53 Korean War. Washington has said it wants Pyongyang to rejoin the talks first.


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