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Are North Korea's nuclear weapons small enough to fit a ballistic missile?

North Korea claims to have made progress on miniaturized nuclear devices. Some experts credit that claim, but much of what North Korea can or can't do remains unknown.

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A visitor poses in front of North Korea's mock Scud-B missile (c.) and other South Korean missiles on display at Korea War Memorial Museum in Seoul, South Korea, on April 13. South Korea’s top security official said Sunday that North Korea may be setting the stage for a missile test or another provocative act.

Ahn Young-joon/AP

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Can North Korea make a nuclear warhead small enough to fit atop a ballistic missile? That’s a key question facing the US and its allies in East Asia as tensions continue to roil the Korean Peninsula.

Following its Feb. 12 nuclear test, Pyongyang boasted that it had detonated a “miniaturized and lighter nuclear device." Some US experts interpreted this to mean that North Korea is claiming to have developed a weapon that would fit on a Nodong medium-range rocket or, perhaps, even the untested, longer-range KN-08. This would threaten South Korea and perhaps Japan, but not the US mainland itself.

“The question is, do we believe them?” writes nuclear expert Jeffrey Lewis of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies in Foreign Policy magazine.

The public US government position is that it does not know how far down the road toward miniaturized nuclear devices North Korea has progressed. In 2005, the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency told a congressional hearing that North Korea had the capability to arm a missile with a plutonium-based nuclear device, but Pentagon officials later backed away from that conclusion, according to a 2013 Congressional Research Service report on technical issues related to North Korea’s nuclear weapons.

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