South Korea says it believes North Korea has up to 60 nuclear bombs – but refuses to accept it is a nuclear state.
Estimates on the size of the isolated nation’s nuclear arsenal range from 20 bombs to as many as 60, the South’s unification minister Cho Myoung-gyon told parliament.
It is the first time a senior Seoul official has publicly spoken about the size of the North’s secretive haul of weapons.
Mr Cho said the information came from the intelligence authorities.
However, he said this did not mean South Korea would accept North Korea as a nuclear state, suggesting Seoul’s diplomatic efforts to halt the North’s nuclear programme would continue.
According to South Korean government reports, the North is believed to have produced 50kg (110lbs) of weaponised plutonium, enough for at least eight nuclear bombs.
South Korea’s main spy agency, the National Intelligence Service, did not comment immediately.
As denuclearisation talks between the US and North Korea continue to stall, Pyongyang has warned Washington that it cannot use a declaration to end the Korean War as a bargaining chip.
However, it suggested the lifting of sanctions could progress talks.
The two Koreas are technically still at war because although an armistice was signed in 1953, no peace treaty has ever been agreed.
In April, the leaders of North and South Korea met at the demilitarised zone between the two states and agreed to sign a treaty by the end of the year.
The North’s official news agency said its government, led by dictator Kim Jong Un, has taken significant measures to end hostile relations with its southern neighbour.
But it claimed the US is “trying to subdue” it through sanctions – an unsubtle call for Washington to lift sanctions if it wants any progress in their stalled nuclear negotiations.
An editorial in a state-run North Korean newspaper said a declaration replacing the 65-year-old armistice to formally end the war “is not just a gift from a man to another”.
“It can never be a bargaining chip for getting the DPRK denuclearised,” it added.
US secretary of state Mike Pompeo is expected to travel to North Korea soon in an attempt to revive negotiations to set the stage for a second summit between Donald Trump and Mr Kim.