Taken in alongside North Korea's recent provocative behavior, Clapper's assessment that they are getting closer and closer to obtaining a steady supply of nuclear weapons should serve as an alarm call. Reports that the communist dictatorship is also working on building intercontinental ballistic missiles raise the stakes further, as the American homeland becomes potentially at risk.
“‘We assess that North Korea has followed through on its announcement by expanding its Yongbyon enrichment facility and restarting the plutonium production reactor,' Mr Clapper wrote in his annual assessment of threats facing the US.
‘We further assess that North Korea has been operating the reactor long enough so that it could begin to recover plutonium from the reactor's spent fuel within a matter of weeks to months.'
Mr Clapper also told the Senate Armed Services Committee that Pyongyang was committed to developing a long-range, nuclear-armed missile ‘capable of posing a direct threat to the United States'.
He said it had publicly displayed a mobile intercontinental ballistic missile system and had taken ‘initial steps toward fielding this system, although the system has not been flight-tested'.
Experts have said that, when fully operational, the Yongbyon reactor could make one nuclear bomb's worth of plutonium per year. About 4kg of plutonium is needed in order to make a bomb that would explode with a force of 20 kilotons.
Pyongyang has pledged several times to stop operations at Yongbyon and even destroyed the cooling tower in 2008 as part of a disarmament-for-aid deal.
However, in March 2013, following a row with the US and after new UN sanctions over a third nuclear test, it vowed to restart all facilities at Yongbyon.
Six-nation talks involving South Korea, the US, China, Japan and Russia aimed at ending the North's nuclear programme have been stalled since 2009.
Pyongyang says it has made a device small enough to fit a nuclear warhead on to a missile, which it could launch at its enemies. However, US officials have cast doubt on the claim.”