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North Korea: A nuclear 7-Eleven?

SEOUL -- Experts differ about the scale and immediacy of the military threat posed by North Korea's latest nuclear test, but there is little disagreement about the alarming proliferation risks it presents.

The most pressing concern is that cash-strapped North Korea will become a one-stop shop, selling nuclear material, technology and even weapons to other countries, terror groups, or states seen as sponsoring terror.

And there is also a fear that the North's nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs will prompt others in the region to reconsider their non-nuclear status, causing the entire non-proliferation regime to unravel.

North Korea has clear form as a proliferator, notably in the sharing of missile technology with Iran, but also in helping Syria build the nuclear reactor that was destroyed by Israeli warplanes in 2007.

“Nuclear terrorism is the thing we worry most about in the United States,” said Robert Gallucci, president of the MacArthur Foundation and a former U.S. assistant secretary of state.

“The prospect that the North will sell highly enriched uranium, nuclear weapons designs or even nuclear weapons to all comers, is not a happy thought if you live in one of America's cities,” Gallucci told a nuclear security forum in Seoul on Tuesday.

A key unanswered question arising from the North's test on Feb. 12 concerns the type of fissile material that was used.

South Korean, Japanese and U.N. monitoring efforts have so far failed to detect any tell-tale radioactive fallout, but many experts believe the North detonated a uranium device for the first time.

Its two previous tests in 2006 and 2009 had both been of plutonium bombs, and a confirmed switch to uranium would fuel proliferation concerns.

Highly enriched uranium is seen as the “preferred currency” of rogue states and terror groups. It is the easiest fissile material from which to make a crude bomb and uranium enrichment technology can be readily transferred and sold.

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