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(2nd LD) N. Korea says it has 'miniaturized' nuke warheads

All Headlines 10:39 March 09, 2016

(ATTN: UPDATES with more info from para 2)

SEOUL, March 9 (Yonhap) -- North Korea has made nuclear warheads small enough to fit on ballistic missiles, the North's state media said Wednesday, in the latest claim that it has advanced its weapons capabilities.

At a meeting with nuclear scientists and technicians, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un said that his country has made a nuclear bomb lighter and achieved its "standardization," according to the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA).

"The nuclear warheads have been standardized to be fit for ballistic missiles by miniaturizing them," Kim was quoted as saying by the KCNA. "This can be called true nuclear deterrent."

It is rare for the North's leader to directly comment on the country's advances in miniaturizing nuclear warheads.

North Korea has made efforts to develop a nuclear-tipped missile capable of reaching as far as the U.S. mainland, and the country has insisted that it entered the technological phase to miniaturize and even diversified its nuclear bombs. Such claims, however, have not been verified by outside experts, who have generally been doubtful of Pyongyang's boasts.

U.S. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh said Tuesday that the North is not believed to have mastered the technology to fit a nuclear warhead onto a long-range missile yet.

A week ago, the United Nations Security Council adopted a new sanctions resolution punishing the North for its Jan. 6 nuclear test and Feb. 7 long-range rocket launch.

The North said its long-range rocket launch was to send a satellite into orbit, but Seoul and Washington view it as a cover for a banned test of ballistic missile technology.

Experts say long-range rockets and intercontinental ballistic missiles are basically the same, differing only in payload.

Analysts said that Kim's comments on smaller nuclear bombs seem to reflect the North's jitters as Seoul and Washington kicked off their largest-ever joint military drills on Monday. The North claims the drills are a rehearsal for a northward invasion.

Earlier this week, Pyongyang threatened to take pre-emptive nuclear strikes against South Korea and the United States so that they may deal "merciless deadly blows" to them.

This year's drills mobilize a record high of some 17,000 U.S. troops, along with other military assets.

"It was very rare that the North's leader has come to the front in displaying his country's nuclear capabilities," said Chang Yong-seok, a researcher at the Seoul National University Institute for Peace and Unification Studies.

He said that the North's reaction seems to indicate that the country's regime views the Seoul-Washington joint exercise as very grave.

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