By Duyeon Kim
Updated by Usha Sahay, Sam Kane, and Kingston Reif
• North Korea currently possesses between four and eight nuclear weapons. It has carried out three nuclear tests since 2006.
• It has developed and tested a range of short- and medium-range missiles, but has yet to successfully test a long-range missile or ICBM.
• It is generally believed to have not yet developed the capabilities needed to miniaturize a nuclear device for missile delivery.
NUCLEAR WEAPONS CAPABILITIES
Claimed Objective: Deter a U.S. invasion and hostile policy against it, such as U.S. sanctions and joint military exercises with South Korea. Pyongyang believes the United States desires regime change.
Apparent Objective: Regime survival and recognition as a nuclear power. The regime believes that its nuclear and ballistic missile programs enhance its security and diplomatic position (1) domestically, as a demonstration of strength against hostile Americans, and (2) internationally, as a bargaining chip and means to be treated as equal to nuclear weapons states. The regime has recently revised its constitution, which now refers to North Korea as a nuclear weapon state, a status that, in the international arena, is only granted to the five states that possessed nuclear weapons in 1968, when the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty was opened for signatures (the United States, the Soviet Union (now Russia), the United Kingdom, France, and China). Pyongyang also appears to be pursuing the ability to miniaturize a nuclear warhead and mount it on a long-range ballistic missile.
Number of nuclear weapons: Unverified, but total plutonium production suggests between four to eight nuclear weapons.
• Diplomatic sources
• Mary Beth Nitkin, “North Korea’s Nuclear Weapons: Technical Issues,” Congressional Research Service,
• Facilities: Yongbyon nuclear complex; North Hamgyong Province (Chungjinsi, Kiljugun, Pungyre); Chagangdo Province (Kanggyesi); North Pyongan Provice (Yongbyonsi, Kusungsi, Taechongun); South Pyongan Provice (Pyongsungsi)
• Stockpile: Believed to be between 30 kg and 50 kg, with a portion of the stockpile having actually been used in North Korea’s nuclear tests.
Suspected – Pyongyang; Pakchon; Taechon; Chonmasan; Hagap; Yongjori;
Confirmed – Yongbyon (pilot plant). In November 2010, Pyongyang unveiled a pilot uranium enrichment plant to American scientist Siegfried Hecker. It is widely believed to be a cover for its clandestine uranium enrichment programs, and not intended for peaceful nuclear energy generation. Other sites are believed to be hidden.
- Stockpile: Unknown. It is virtually impossible to verify enriched uranium stockpiles from a technical standpoint.
• Various open and diplomatic sources.
• “North Korea’s Nuclear Material Production Site is Chunmasan Basement: A Former North Korean People’s Liberation Army Defector’s Testimony,” Shin Donga, 1 Aug 2001 (Korean language).
Apparent Objective: To miniaturize a nuclear warhead to mount on a long-range missile.
Nuclear tests: Three.
1. October 2006 – Claimed successful. Deemed unsuccessful.
On October 16, the U.S. Director of National Intelligence confirmed “North Korea conducted an underground nuclear explosion in the vicinity of P’unggye on October 9, 2006. The explosion yield was less than a kiloton,” and later said it was apparently more successful. One kiloton is far less than other nuclear states’ first tests of 10-20 kt. The international community has called the North’s test a failure.
2. May 25, 2009 – Claimed successful. Deemed unsuccessful.
On June 15, the U.S. Director of National Intelligence stated, “The U.S. Intelligence Community assesses that North Korea probably conducted an underground nuclear explosion in the vicinity of P’unggye on May 25, 2009. The explosion yield was approximately a few kilotons. Analysis of the event continues.” However, there is a lack of conclusive physical evidence in open sources that proves the test was a nuclear one. Official and unofficial reports vary on estimated yield but it is generally regarded as higher than its 2006 test.
Test site: Pungyre (Northeast, 2006 & 2009 test site); Yongdoktong (Northwest; speculated)
Nuclear site: Kumchangri (underground site speculated to house a nuclear facility)
3. February 12, 2013 – Claimed successful. Widely deemed successful.
On February 12, the U.S. Director of National Intelligence stated, “The U.S. Intelligence Community assesses that North Korea probably conducted an underground nuclear explosion in the vicinity of P’unggye on February 12, 2013. The explosion yield was approximately several kilotons. Analysis of the event continues.” The estimated yield remains unclear, In addition, some experts speculated that the test involved uranium, rather than plutonium as in the case of the last two tests, but there has been no official confirmation regarding which material was involved in the test.
It is unclear how soon Pyongyang will be able to miniaturize a nuclear warhead to mount on a missile. In April 2013, the US Defense Intelligence Agency asserted that it had “moderate confidence” that North Korea had developed this ability. However, this claim has not been corroborated by other US or South Korean intelligence agencies. In a May 2013 analysis, the Arms Control Association’s Greg Thielmann, a Senior Fellow at the Arms Control Association, wrote that, “Although [North Korea] has hundreds of operational short- and medium-range ballistic missiles, there is no evidence that it has achieved the miniaturization of a nuclear device necessary for arming these missiles.”
• Joseph Medalia, “North Korea’s 2009 Nuclear Test: Containment, Monitoring, Implications,” Congressional Research Service.
BALLISTIC MISSILE CAPABILITIES
Apparent Objective: Improve conventional war capabilities. Develop missiles capable of delivering nuclear warheads targeted at regional adversaries and the continental US. A grave concern remains the possible development of an inter-continental ballistic missile capable of delivering a chemical, biological, or nuclear warhead that can reach the U.S. continent. Given repeated test failures, most missile experts believe Pyongyang is far from achieving this goal.
Ballistic Missile Facility: Musudan-ri; Yongjo-ri; Sangnam-ri; Tongchang-ri, Chiha-ri
Delivery Systems (Ballistic Missiles)
• KN-01 – short-range anti-ship cruise missile. Range estimated at 160 km. Believed to be an improved version of the Soviet Termit missile (“Styx”).
• KN-02 – short-range, solid-fueled, highly accurate mobile missile. Range estimated between 100-120 km. Modified copy of the Soviet OTR-21 (SS-21 Tochka; also referred to as “Scarab”); unknown number in service; believed to have been deployed in the late 1990s or early 2000s.
• Hwasong-5 (Scud-B) – short-range, initial Scud modification. Road-mobile, liquid-fueled missile. Estimated range of 300 km (can reach throughout South Korea) and capable of delivering a 900 kg payload. Tested successfully. First deployed in 1988. Delivered to Iran for Iraq-Iran war.
• Hwasong-6 (Scud-C, Scud-PIP) – Improved version of Hwasong-5. Range of 500 km, able to carry 700-800 kg payload. First deployed in 1988. Said to be the most widely deployed missile, with at least 400 in service.
• Rodong (Nodong-1)– medium-range missile with an estimated range of 1,000-1,500 km; payload of 1,000 kg. Capable of reaching across Japan; capable of carrying a simple nuclear warhead, according to analysis from ISIS. First deployed in 1998. DPRK has deployed between 175 and 200 of these missiles. Certain sources have mentioned the existence of a Rodong-2, but studies from RAND and the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies assert that it does not exist, or may be another name for the Taepodong-1.
• Taepodong-1 (Paektusan-1) – two-stage liquid-fueled medium-range ballistic missile, modified to serve as a three-stage space launch vehicle; incapable of delivering nuclear payload to intercontinental ranges due to poor technical accuracy; estimated range of 2,000-2,900 km. Theoretically capable of delivering small 100-200 kg payloads to continental US, but that payload is far too small for a nuclear weapon, and so the Taepodong-1 cannot be considered a usable ICBM. Was tested with partial success in 1998, with the missile experiencing a third-stage failure.
• Taepodong-2 (Paektusan-2/Unha-2/Unha-3) – larger, more capable multi-stage missile; currently under development. Depending on size of payload, possible strategic capability against continental U.S; believed to be a potential intercontinental ballistic missile; exact range unknown, various government estimates of possible ranges run from 3,400-15,000 km. Was tested five times between 2006 and 2013, with its only successful flight coming in December 2012, when it was used as a space-launch vehicle. According to a 2012 report from the Department of Defense, the Taepodong-2 has yet to be deployed by the North Korean military.
• Musudan-1 (Taepodong-X, Nodong-B, BM-25) – single-stage intermediate range ballistic missile (IRBM); range 2,500-4,000 km capable of direct strikes on South Korea, Japan, and Guam, thus putting U.S. military bases at risk; Has not been tested and is not known to be operational.
Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM)
• KN08 — North Korean road mobile ICBM; first presented at parade in April 2012, but many analysts argue that the missiles on display were only mock-ups. Has not been tested, and no open-source evidence exists to suggest that they are operational.
Long-Range Rockets (Space Launch Vehicles)
• Unha rocket-Kwangmyongsong satellite combo — The North claims its long-range rockets are designed for peaceful scientific purposes to launch a satellite into orbit. However, the UN Security Council and international community view long-range rockets as synonymous with long-range missiles – the technology used in space launchers is essentially the same as ballistic missile technology. Global diplomats and scientists view Pyongyang’s claimed objective as veiled practice rounds to eventually launch a missile tipped with a nuclear warhead.
• Various open sources: South Korean Defense Ministry, International Institute for Strategic Studies, International Crisis Group.
• “Military and Security Developments Involving the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea,” Office of the Secretary of Defense.
• “Resources on North Korea’s Ballistic Missile Program,” Center for Non-Proliferation Studies.
• Steven Pifer, “North Korea and Nuclear-Armed Missiles: Calming the Hyperbole,” Brookings Institution.
• Sungwoo Park, “North Korea Nuclear Detonations, Missile Tests: Timeline,” Bloomberg.
North Korea has carried out only one successful test of a long-range missile – its successful launch of an Taepodong-2/Unha-3 rocket in December 2012.
• April and September 1984 – Hwasong-5 (Scud-B)
• January 1987 – Hwasong 6 (Scud-C) prototype.
• May 1990 – Rodong-1; unsuccessful – based on images gathered by US intelligence satellites, missile exploded on launch pad.
• June 1990 – Hwasong-6 (Scud-C); successful; launched from Nodong test site over the Sea of Japan.
• July 1991 – mobile Hwasong-6 (Scud-C); successful; launched from military base in Kangwon Province towards target in Sea of Japan.
• Fall 1991 – Joint Chinese-North Korean MRBM prototype; tested at Yinchuan, China.
• June 1992 – Rodong-1; unsuccessful
• May 1993 – Rodong-1; successful; launched from North Hamgyong Province 500 km into the Sea of Japan.
• August 1998 – Taepodong-1; successful; fired from eastern North Korea over Japan; third-stage failed; claimed Kwangmyongsong-1 satellite launch.
• February 2003 – Likely KN-01; unsuccessful; travels only 60 km (range of 160 km); launched from North or South Hamgyong Province into the Sea of Japan.
• March 2003 – Likely KN-01; unsuccessful; explodes in mid-air before reaching target in Sea of Japan.
• May 2005 – Likely KN-02; launched into Sea of Japan.
• July 2006 – Combination of Taepodong-2, Rodong-1, and Scud missiles; Taepodong-2 failed; crashed into Sea of Japan less than one minute after launching.
• April 2009 – Taepodong-2; claimed Kwangmyongsong-2 Rocket and Unha-2 satellite; unsuccessful; crashes in Pacific Ocean.
• July 2009 – Rodong missiles; launched into Sea of Japan.
• April 2012 – Kwangmyongsong-3 satellite and Unha-3 rocket; unsuccessful; launch from northwest North Korea; possible second stage failure.
• December 2012 – Kwangyongsong-3 and Unha-3 rocket launch; successful; satellite placed into orbit; launch from northwest North Korea.
North Korea has typically tested long-range missiles/rocket before a nuclear test. Over the past two decades, Pyongyang has sold at least a few hundred Hwasong-5/-6 or Rodong missiles, materials, equipment, production technology, and parts to Middle Eastern countries including Egypt, Iran, Libya, Pakistan, Syria, the United Arab Emirates, and Yemen.
• Various open sources: South Korean Defense Ministry; GlobalSecurity.org;
• “North Korea’s Ballistic Missile Programme,” International Institute for Strategic Studies.
• “North Korea Missile Chronology,” Nuclear Threat Initiative.
• “North Korea Missile Milestones, 1969-2011,” Wisconsin Project on Nuclear Arms Control.
• Daniel Pinkston, “The North Korean Ballistic Missile Program,” Army Strategic Studies Institute.
• “Resources on North Korea’s Ballistic Missile Program.” Center for Non-Proliferation Studies.
Ranges of various North Korean missiles
Source: The Washington Post
NUCLEAR WARHEAD MINIATURIZATION
• After Pyongyang’s nuclear test in February 2013, the Korean Central News Agency, the North Korean government’s official news agency, issued a statement saying that Pyongyang had tested a “miniaturized and lighter device with greater explosive force than previously,” sparking concerns that North Korea had mastered the technology needed to create warheads small enough to be mounted on ballistic missiles.
• In February 2013, David Albright, President of the Institute for Science and International Security, wrote that, “North Korea likely has the capability to mount a plutonium-based nuclear warhead on the shorter range Nodong missile,” while also asserting that Pyongyang has not yet developed this capability with regards to ICBMs.
• In an April 2013 report, the Defense Intelligence Agency expressed “moderate confidence” that North Korea had developed the ability to place a miniaturized nuclear weapon atop a ballistic missile. However, that assertion has not been corroborated by other intelligence agencies, and has been actively disputed by the South Korean government and President Obama, Moreover, it is important to note that the DIA report also stressed that “reliability will be low” for any hypothetical North Korean nuclear missile.
TIMELINE OF KEY EVENTS
- April and September 1984 – Hwasong-5 (Scud-B) missile test
- June 1990 – Hwasong-6 (Scud-C) missile test
- May 1993 – Rodong-1 missile test
- October 1994 – Agreed Framework signed between US and North Korea.
- August 1998 – Taepodong-1 missile (N. Korea’s claimed Kwangmyongsong-1 satellite launch)
- September 1999 – North Korea agrees to long-range missile moratorium in exchange for the lifting of U.S. economic sanctions
- October 2002 – North Korea admits to a clandestine uranium enrichment program
- January 2003 – North Korea withdraws from NPT
- September 2005 – Parties to the Six-Party Negotiations (South korea, North Korea, US, PRC, Japan, and Russia) issue a joint statement after their fourth round of negotiations. Under the terms of this statement, North Korea committed itself to dismantling its non-civilian nuclear program and rejoining the NPT/IAEA regime. Meanwhile, the other five parties committed themselves to respecting North Korea’s right to develop a peaceful nuclear program, with the US and South Korea also pledging not to deploy nuclear weapons on the Korean peninsula.
- July 2006 – Taepodong-2, Rodong-1, and Scud missile tests.
- October 2006 – North Korea carries out its first test of a nuclear weapon.
- October 2006 – The UN Security Council adopts Resolution 1718, imposing a range of economic and commercial sanctions upon North Korea.
- February 2007 – Six Parties come to agreement on steps to implement the terms of the 2005 Joint Statement. North Korea commits to shutting down Yongbyon nuclear facility. US and Japan commit to engaging in talks with Pyongyang regarding diplomatic normalization. Non-DPRK parties also agree to begin providing energy aid to North Korea.
- October 2007 – Six Parties come to agreement on second-phase actions to implement September 2005 agreement. North Korea agrees to shut down three key components of the Yongbyon facility and commits to not transfer nuclear material, technology, or knowledge to other parties. Other parties agree to continue with provision of energy aid and negotiation of diplomatic normalization.
- June 2008 – North Korea destroys a cooling tower at Yongbyon and issues a declaration of its nuclear activities. In response, the US lifts some sanctions mandated by the Trading with the Enemy Act, and removes North Korea from its official list of State Sponsors of Terrorism.
- April 2009 – Taepodong-2 missile launch (N. Korea’s claimed Unha-2 rocket and Kwangmyongsong-2 satellite launch).
- April 2009 – In response to Pyongyang’s launch of a Taepodong-2 missile, the UN Security Council expands sanctions on North Korea. North Korea responds, in turn, by withdrawing from the Six-Party negotiations.
- May 2009 – North Korea carries out its second test of a nuclear weapon.
- June 2009 – The UN Security Council adopts Resolution 1874, further expanding sanctions against North Korea.
- July 2009 – Rodong-Scud missile launch.
- February 2012 – US and North Korean officials reach a “Leap Day Agreement” on February 29, with the US promising food aid to North Korea, in exchange for Pyongyang promising to halt uranium enrichment and nuclear/missile testing.
- April 2012 – North Korea launches unsuccessful test of Kwangmyongsong-3 satellite and Unha-3 rocket, leading to the collapse of the Leap Day Agreement.
- April 2012 – UN Security Council adopts chairman’s statement condemning North Korea’s rocket launch.
- December 2012 – North Korea carries out successful launch of Unha-3 rocket and Kwangyongsong-3 satellite.
- February 2013 – North Korea carries out third nuclear test, with suspicions of enriched uranium and warhead miniaturization.
- March 2013 – Throughout the month, North Korea engages in a series of provocative actions, such as declaring an end to the 1953 Korean War armistice, withdrawing from non-aggression pacts with South Korea, and announcing its intention to launch missiles at US bases in the Pacific. However, no military clashes or fatalities ultimately result from this crisis.
- May 2013 – North Korea fires a series of short-range missiles into the Sea of Japan.
• Choe Sang-Hun, “North Korea Proposes High-Level Talks With US,” The New York Times
• “The Six-Party Talks at a Glance,” Arms Control Association.
• Greg Thielmann, “Sorting Out the Nuclear and Missile Threats From North Korea,” Arms Control Association.