September 5, 2017 12:46 am JST

Seoul believes Pyongyang has nuclear warhead ready for ICBM

South Korean defense chief made assessment after Sunday's powerful blast

HIROSHI MINEGISHI, Nikkei Seoul bureau chief

North Korean leader Kim Jong Un provides guidance on a nuclear weapons program in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency on Sept. 3. © KCNA/Reuters

SEOUL -- The South Korean military now assumes that Pyongyang has successfully produced a nuclear warhead small enough to be loaded on an intercontinental ballistic missile.

Defense Minister Song Young-moo made that assessment during a committee hearing Monday at the National Assembly, according to Yonhap News Agency and other South Korean media outlets. He said the North Korean regime has apparently lowered the payload to below 500kg, a key threshold that allows for use of ICBMs.

Song also said Sunday's underground test of a nuclear device was the North's most powerful to date, with a yield of 50 kilotons. By carrying out its sixth test so far, Pyongyang is establishing facts on the ground proving it is a nuclear power, Song noted.

South Korea's defense chief also said at the hearing that observations indicate the isolated state is readying another ballistic missile launch.

North Korea has claimed that it detonated a hydrogen bomb Sunday. But South Korea's National Intelligence Service on Monday told a closed-door legislative hearing that it has yet to confirm that. 

The intelligence service also said that additional provocations from Pyongyang could include firing an ICBM toward the northern Pacific on a conventional trajectory, according to lawmakers present at the hearing.

The intelligence body added that two of the four underground tunnels at North Korea's Punggye-ri nuclear facility are capable of carrying out tests at any time.

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