North Korea has embarked on an accelerated buildup of weapons of mass destruction and modernization of its already large conventional force.
Backgrounder by Eleanor Albert
Last updated July 9, 2019
The United States and its Asian allies regard North Korea as a grave security threat. North Korea has one of the world’s largest conventional military forces, which, combined with its missile and nuclear tests and aggressive rhetoric, has aroused concern worldwide. But world powers have been ineffective in slowing its path to acquire nuclear weapons.
While it remains among the poorest countries in the world, North Korea spends nearly a quarter of its gross domestic product (GDP) on its military, according to U.S. State Department estimates. Its brinkmanship will continue to test regional and international partnerships aimed at preserving stability and security. Recent U.S.-North Korea summits and U.S. President Donald J. Trump’s brief meeting with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un at the demilitarized zone in June 2019, have deepened direct diplomacy. But the negotiations so far demonstrate that the dismantling of North Korea’s arsenal will remain a lengthy and challenging process.
What are North Korea’s nuclear capabilities?
North Korea has tested a series of different missiles, including short-, medium-, intermediate-, and intercontinental- range, and submarine-launched ballistic missiles.
Estimates of the country’s nuclear stockpile vary: some experts believe Pyongyang has between ten and thirty nuclear weapons, while U.S. intelligence officials have estimated the number to be between thirty and sixty. The regime successfully tested intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM), each capable of carrying a large nuclear warhead, in July and November 2017. Pyongyang said that in its November testing of the new Hwasong-15 ICBM, the missile hit an altitude of 4,475 kilometers (2,780 miles), far above the International Space Station, and flew about 1,000 kilometers (590 miles) before landing in the sea off Japan’s coast. Analysts estimate the Hwasong-15 has a potential range of 13,000 kilometers (8,100 miles) and, if fired on a flatter trajectory, could reach anywhere on the U.S. mainland.
American analysts and experts from other countries still debate the nuclear payload that the ICBM could carry, and it is still unclear whether the ICBMs have the capability to survive reentry. A confidential U.S. intelligence assessment from July 2017 reportedly concluded that North Korea has developed the technology to miniaturize a nuclear warhead to fit its ballistic missiles. And some experts caution that it is only a matter of time before North Korea completes its nuclear force. “We’re going to have to learn to live with North Korea’s ability to target the United States with nuclear weapons,” said Jeffrey Lewis of the Middlebury Institute of Strategic Studies.
North Korea has conducted six nuclear tests, first in October 2006 and then in May 2009 under Kim Jong-il. Under Kim Jong-un’s leadership, the country detonated weapons in February 2013, January and September 2016, and September 2017. The regime possesses the know-how to produce bombs with weapons-grade uranium or plutonium, the primary elements required for making fissile material—the core component of nuclear weapons.
With each test, North Korea’s nuclear explosions have grown in power. The first explosion in 2006 was a plutonium-fueled atomic bomb with a yield equivalent to two kilotons of TNT, an energy unit used to measure the power of an explosive blast. The 2009 test had a yield of eight kilotons; the 2013 and January 2016 tests both had yields of approximately seventeen kilotons; and the September 2016 test had a yield of thirty-five kilotons, according to data from the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a Washington, D.C.-based nonpartisan think tank. (For comparison, the U.S. bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945, the first atom bomb, had an estimated yield of sixteen kilotons.)
“ We’re going to have to learn to live with North Korea’s ability to target the United States with nuclear weapons. ”
—Jeffrey Lewis, Middlebury Institute of Strategic Studies
As the power of the North’s nuclear tests intensified, so too did the pace of both the country’s nuclear and missile tests. Under Kim Jong-un, who assumed leadership of North Korea in late 2011, the nuclear program markedly accelerated. Kim has directed four nuclear tests and more than ninety missile tests, far exceeding the number of trials conducted under his father and grandfather.
The test carried out on September 3, 2017, was significantly larger, experts say, and could indicate that the country has developed much more powerful bomb-making technology. Estimates from seismic activity led observers to conclude that the explosion likely exceeded two hundred kilotons. An explosion of such a size gives credence to the North’s claims of having developed a hydrogen bomb. In April 2018, Chinese scientists reported that the strength of the blast had damaged part of North Korea’s Punggye-ri underground nuclear test site. The following month, North Korea announced that it would close down the Punggye-ri testing site because it had reached its nuclear goals. Foreign journalists were invited to observe the demolition of tunnels at the testing site, a move seen as a confidence-building measure amid diplomatic efforts between North Korea and the United States.
Kim halted nuclear testing in November 2017 amid a thawing of relations with the United States and South Korea. In June 2018, Trump discussed denuclearization with Kim in Singapore, marking the first-ever meeting between sitting U.S. and North Korean leaders. Trump agreed to provide North Korea security guarantees and cease joint military exercises with South Korea, while Kim pledged to halt missile testing and “work toward” denuclearization. Both sides committed to fostering “peace and prosperity” in the Korean Peninsula. The ensuing Hanoi summit in February 2019 ended abruptly when Trump and Kim disagreed over sanctions relief and denuclearization.
Pyongyang resumed its testing activity in May 2019, firing several new short-range projectiles. The two farthest-flying ballistic missiles tested that month reached flight ranges of 270 kilometers (170 miles) and 420 kilometers (260 miles), respectively. Observers say the tests were likely meant to convey Kim’s dissatisfaction over the breakdown of negotiations at Hanoi. The following month, Trump and Kim vowed to restart talks during a brief meeting at the demilitarized zone separating North and South Korea.
There remain significant unknowns surrounding the accuracy of North Korea’s ballistic missiles. Expert observers have said that these missiles are usually inaccurate because of their reliance on early guidance systems acquired from the Soviet Union. However, some defectors and experts say North Korea has begun using GPS guidance, similar to that of China’s navigation system, raising questions about the provenance of the system and whether North Korea’s arsenal of missiles is more accurate and reliable than previously believed.
Have other countries aided North Korea’s nuclear program?
The program is predominantly indigenous but has received external assistance over the years. Moscow, for instance, assisted Pyongyang’s nuclear development from the late 1950s to the 1980s: it helped build a nuclear research reactor and provided missile designs, light-water reactors, and some nuclear fuel. In the 1970s, China and North Korea cooperated on defense, including on the development and production of ballistic missiles. North Korean scientists also benefited from academic exchanges with Soviet and Chinese counterparts. Though the exchanges may not have been explicitly tied to weapons development, the information learned from research sharing and visits to nuclear facilities could have been applied to a militarized nuclear program, according to Joseph S. Bermudez Jr., an analyst of North Korean defense and intelligence affairs.
“ Kim Jong-un believes that nuclear weapons are his guarantee of regime survival. ”
—Bruce Bennett, RAND Corporation
Pakistan also emerged as an important military collaborator with North Korea in the 1970s. Bilateral nuclear assistance began when scientists from the two countries were both in Iran working on ballistic missiles during the Iran-Iraq War (1980–1988). In the 1990s, North Korea acquired access to Pakistani centrifuge technology and designs from scientist Abdul Qadeer Khan, who had directed the militarization of Pakistan’s nuclear program. Pyongyang also received designs for a uranium warhead that Pakistan had likely obtained from China. In exchange, Pakistan received North Korean missile technology. It remains unclear whether Khan acted directly or indirectly on the behalf of the Pakistani government. (Khan’s multinational network also illicitly sold nuclear technology and material to buyers, including Iran and Libya.) The nuclear know-how gained from Pakistan likely enabled North Korea to operate centrifuges and thereby pursue a uranium route to the bomb.
Third parties have also facilitated Pyongyang’s program through the illicit shipment of metal components needed for centrifuge construction and nuclear weaponization. North Korea has developed covert networks for the procurement of technology, materials, and designs to boost its conventional and nuclear weapons programs since the 1960s. These networks, once primarily in Europe, have shifted to Asia and Africa, and goods are often traded multiple times before reaching North Korean hands, says Bermudez.
What punitive steps has North Korea faced?
North Korea’s withdrawal from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) in 2003 and its missile tests and first nuclear test in 2006 prompted the UN Security Council to unanimously adopt resolutions that condemned North Korea’s actions and imposed sanctions against the country. The Security Council has steadily ratcheted up sanctions through subsequent resolutions in the hopes of changing Pyongyang’s behavior. These additional measures ban arms sales to North Korea, as well as any financial assistance and the sale of materials and technology that could be used for ballistic missiles or nuclear weapons. The measures also impose restrictions on select luxury goods and other foreign trade, as well as inspections of cargo bound for North Korea.
Though sanctions have curtailed North Korea’s access to materials, it is difficult to enforce and regulate all international cargo deliveries. More recently, there has been a greater push to limit North Korean financial resources in a bid to stunt funds directed to military and nuclear advancements. Some experts and officials have condemned China’s earlier assistance to the North’s ballistic missile program, ongoing trade relationship with North Korea, and lackluster enforcement of sanctions.
Separately, North Korea has a record of missile sales and nuclear technology sharing with countries including Egypt, Iran, Libya, Myanmar, Syria, the United Arab Emirates, Vietnam, and Yemen. It has secretly transferred “nuclear-related and ballistic-missile-related equipment, know-how, and technology,” the United Nations has reported. Given North Korea’s economic constraints, fears abound that North Korea could resort to selling more nuclear material and knowledge, thereby enhancing the potential for nuclear terrorism.
Does North Korea possess other weapons of mass destruction?
The North is believed to have an arsenal of chemical weapons, including sulfur mustard, chlorine, phosgene, sarin, and VX nerve agents. The regime reportedly has the “capability to produce [PDF] nerve, blister, blood, and choking agents” and is estimated to have stockpiled [PDF] between 2,500 and 5,000 tons of chemical weapons. These toxins can be fired using a variety of conventional shells, rockets, aircraft, and missiles. The army also manufactures its own protective suits and detection systems for chemical warfare. North Korea is reported to have received early help from the Soviet Union and China to develop its chemical weapons program.
North Korea is also believed to possess some biological weapons capabilities, although it became party in 1987 to the Biological Weapons Convention, a treaty banning the production, development, stockpiling, and attempts to acquire biological weapons. In 1988, it acceded to the Geneva Protocol, which prohibits the use of asphyxiating, poisonous, and other gases in warfare. The North allegedly has the ability to produce [PDF] pathogens including anthrax, smallpox, and pest (plague), although its ability to weaponize them is unclear.
What are North Korea’s conventional military capabilities?
North Korea’s military is the world’s fourth largest, with more than 1.2 million active personnel, accounting for nearly 6 percent of the total population. More than six million others serve as reserve soldiers. Article 86 of the North Korean constitution states, “National defense is the supreme duty and honor of citizens,” and it requires all citizens to serve in the military.
The regime spent an average of $3.35 billion annually on the military between 2006 and 2016, according to the U.S. State Department. Although Pyongyang is outspent by its neighbors and adversaries in dollar-to-dollar comparisons and defense experts say it operates with aging equipment and technology, the regime’s forward-deployed military position and missiles aimed at Seoul ensure that Pyongyang’s conventional capabilities remain a constant threat to its southern neighbor.
North Korea has deployed munitions near and along its border with the South and also has conventional missiles aimed at its neighbor and Japan in a bid to deter potential attacks. According to a 2017 U.S. Department of Defense report and a 2016 South Korean Ministry of National Defense report, the North Korean military has more than 1,300 aircraft, nearly 300 helicopters, 430 combatant vessels, 250 amphibious vessels, 70 submarines, 4,300 tanks, 2,500 armored vehicles, and 5,500 multiple-rocket launchers. Experts also estimate that North Korea has upwards of one thousand missiles of varying ranges.
Does it pose a cybersecurity threat?
North Korea has developed computer science know-how and cyberattack capabilities, likely boosted by Chinese and Soviet assistance in the 1980s and 1990s. Most of its cyberattacks have been distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks, which attempt to make a website unavailable to its users by flooding it with internet traffic from multiple sources. Experts point out [PDF] that the relatively rudimentary nature of this type of attack indicates that North Korea’s cyber operations are rather unsophisticated. Additionally, North Korea directs much of its cyber activities through foreign web infrastructure, particularly in China and Malaysia, so that it can deny responsibility for attacks and avoid retribution. In recent years, cyberattacks on South Korean banks and media outlets, as well as the 2014 Sony Pictures hack, were attributed to groups with ties to North Korea. South Korea has also accused the North of breaching its military cyber command in December 2016.
There is also evidence that North Korea was involved in the February 2016 cyber theft of $81 million from the Bangladeshi central bank account at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. It was the first time a state actor was named for using cyber operations to steal money. State-sponsored hackers in North Korea are also linked to the August 2018 malware attack on India’s Cosmos Bank, in which they stole around $13.5 million. In early 2019, the same hackers allegedly looted $10 million from the Bank of Chile’s ATM network. A recent UN Security Council report estimated that North Korea’s state-sponsored hackers have stolen some $670 million in foreign currency and cryptocurrency.
A Center for Strategic and International Studies report stated, “North Korea seems heavily invested in growing and developing its cyber capabilities for both political and military purposes.” Pyongyang and government-linked cyber entities view cyberattacks as a means of seeking financial gain, acting as a deterrent against adversaries in the event of military conflict, and fulfilling the country’s desire of being portrayed as a capable and dangerous actor, says Adam Segal, director of CFR’s Digital and Cyberspace Policy Program.
Sixty-foot-tall statues of North Korea’s founder, Kim Il-sung, and former leader Kim Jong-il stand before the Korean Revolution Museum in Pyongyang. The statue of Kim Il-sung was unveiled in 1972 and Kim Jong-il’s was erected after his death in 2011.
What drives North Korea’s militarization?
North Korea’s guiding philosophical principles have been juche (self-reliance) and songun (military-first politics). The military plays a central role in political affairs and its position has been steadily elevated through the Kim dynasty. North Korean leadership believes that hostile external forces, including South Korea and the United States, could mount an attack. As a result, in Pyongyang’s eyes, the only way to guarantee national survival is to develop asymmetric military capabilities to thwart its perceived threats.
In the decades since the Korean War armistice, the regime in Pyongyang has grown increasingly isolated, in large part due to its ongoing nuclear pursuits and other military provocations. The North’s economy and impoverished population of twenty-five million are more and more cut off from the global economy, with limited means to acquire much-needed hard currency. Despite Pyongyang’s reputation as a pariah state, Kim Jong-un remains committed to a national strategy of building up the economy and nuclear capabilities jointly.
Because Kim has struggled to deliver on his economic promises, he seeks to consolidate his rule by demonstrating unquestioned military might. The nuclear program thus has a dual purpose: to deter external threats and to bolster the image of Kim. “Kim Jong-un believes that nuclear weapons are his guarantee of regime survival,” says Bruce Bennett, a senior researcher at RAND Corporation, a California-based think tank.
Since Kim Jong-un assumed power, the country has shed the ambiguous language surrounding its nuclear and missile development, instead vowing to conduct tests whenever it sees fit. Punitive measures taken against Pyongyang seem to have only emboldened Kim’s commitment to strengthening the military. Though recent summits between Trump and Kim have opened up dialogue on denuclearization, how a peace process might proceed remains uncertain.