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N Korea at crossroads

North Korea can likely arm missiles with nuclear warheads: UN

Pyongyang steals $315m in virtual assets to fund weapons development

UNITED NATIONS -- North Korea has likely developed the ability to mount nuclear warheads onto its intercontinental ballistic missiles, a United Nations panel warned in a Wednesday report, as the country continues to advance its weapons program funded by cryptocurrency heists, smuggling operations and more.

"It 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," concluded the panel, which reports to the U.N. Security Council.

It said there was still uncertainty whether North Korea "had developed ballistic missiles resistant to the heat generated during reentry."

North Korea has been advancing its nuclear and missile capabilities in recent years, including on the production of highly enriched uranium. It is building a light water reactor as well as modernizing the Pyongsan uranium mine complex, according to the report.

The country may be able to produce up to 7 kg of plutonium a year and could already possess a 60 kg stockpile, it said.

North Korea was also found to have worked with Iran on long-rang missile development last year. An Iranian research center received assistance from North Korean missile experts on rocket launches, and the North exported valves, electronics and measuring equipment for missile tests to Iran.

Many countries raised alarms over Pyongyang's growing weapons capabilities.

The Wednesday report "has revealed alarming details on North Korea's advancing nuclear and ballistic missile program. The international community must do better on sanctions implementation," the U.S. Mission to the U.N. tweeted.

Norway, which chairs the U.N. sanctions committee on North Korea, is also "concerned" by Pyongyang's continued development of missiles and weapons of mass destruction, its mission to the U.N. tweeted.

North Korea last week test-fired what is believed to have been two upgraded short-range ballistic missiles. Several members of the U.N. Security Council slammed the move as a clear violation of its resolutions. The body held an emergency meeting on Tuesday, though it did not issue a joint statement.

The latest report outlined ways through which North Korea is funding weapons development.

It tied BeagleBoyz, a hacker unit under North Korea's Reconnaissance General Bureau, to several cyberattacks on financial institutions and cryptocurrency exchanges that had been under investigation since 2019. North Korea swaps the stolen coins for other cryptocurrencies to throw off tracking efforts in a technique called "chain-hopping."

North Korea stole $314.6 million in virtual assets from 2019 to November 2020, the report said.

North Korea was found to be responsible for cyberattacks on dozens of defense industries worldwide, including in Israel. North Korean attackers would impersonate human resources officers at prominent defense and aerospace companies to approach employees at their targets on social media. After forming a connection through texts and phone conversations, they would send emails containing malware to their targets, according to the report.

Ship-to-ship transfers also remain a concern. The report said North Korea exported at least 4.1 million tons of coal and possibly other minerals to China despite U.N. sanctions between January and September of 2020, by transporting cargo between ships at sea. North Korea imported several times its 500,000-barrel annual cap for refined petroleum products, set by the Security Council in December 2017, over the same period.

Due to travel restrictions related to coronavirus pandemic, North Korean workers overseas also have remained at their posts beyond their original end dates and continue to send money back to the regime. Many of them enter foreign countries on tourist and student visas, only to work in construction or technology-related jobs.

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