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Overview Last updated: January, 2016

The Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) has an active nuclear weapons program and tested nuclear explosive devices in 2006, 2009, 2013 and 2016. It is also capable of enriching uranium and producing weapons-grade plutonium. North Korea deploys short- and medium-range ballistic missiles and successfully launched a long-range rocket in 2012. North Korea is also believed to possess biological and chemical weapons programs.

Pyongyang unilaterally withdrew from the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) in January 2003 and is not a party to the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT) or a member of the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR). The DPRK is not a party to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), and is believed to possess a large chemical weapons program. North Korea is a party to the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) and Geneva Protocol, but is suspected of maintaining an offensive biological weapons program in defiance of that treaty.


North Korea's interest in a nuclear weapons program reaches back to the end of World War II. Since then, Pyongyang developed a nuclear fuel cycle capability and has both plutonium and enriched uranium programs capable of producing fissile material. North Korea declared that it had roughly 38.5kg of weapons-grade plutonium extracted from spent fuel rods in May 2008, however external estimates have varied. [1] In November 2010, North Korea unveiled a uranium enrichment program ostensibly intended to produce low enriched uranium for power reactors, though it is possible for Pyongyang to produce highly enriched uranium for weapons purposes. [2] North Korea conducted four nuclear weapons tests in 2006, 2009, 2013 and 2016. [3] As of July 2015, satellite images showed activity at North Korea’s Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Site, but analysts disagreed as to whether this indicated a fourth nuclear test was imminent. [4]

The Six-Party Talks between North Korea, South Korea, Japan, China, Russia, and the United States began in 2003 with the goal of denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula. However, these talks have been suspended since April 2009. Initial uncertainties about North Korea's nuclear program after the death of Kim Jong Il were tempered when Pyongyang agreed to suspend nuclear tests, uranium enrichment, and long-range missile tests in exchange for food aid from the U.S. on 29 February 2012. [5] After a dispute with the United States over the launch of a rocket in April 2012, North Korea declared the agreement void, and later conducted a nuclear test in February 2013. [6] In April 2013, North Korean state media announced that Pyongyang would restart all nuclear facilities at Yongbyon, including its 5MW graphite-moderated reactor, and uranium enrichment plant. [7] By August 2013, satellite imagery confirmed steam venting from the 5MW reactor's turbine and generator building. [8] The reactor is capable of producing 6 kg of plutonium a year, however it is not clear how the modified cooling system, and repeated shutdowns will affect production. [9] In November 2014, imagery analysis suggested that the 5MW reactor had been shut down. [10]  In September 2015, however, state media announced that all nuclear facilities were in normal operation with on-going missions to improve the “quality and quantity” of the country’s nuclear stockpile. [11]  This is consistent with recent satellite imagery that reveal an increase in both plutonium and uranium production-related activities. [12] 

Kim Jong Un also claimed to have thermonuclear capabilities  during his December 2015 visit to the Pyongchon Revolutionary Site.  This claim was met with much skepticism from the international community. [13]

On 06 January, 2016 the DPRK announced it tested its first hydrogen bomb. The CTBTO’s seismic monitoring stations detected an event similar to the 2013 test in the Punggye-Ri area, the site of North Korea’s three previous tests, leading experts to believe there was a nuclear weapon test. So far, not enough information has come to the surface to confirm whether it was a hydrogen bomb, a boosted fission device or a simple fission device. [14]


Although the DPRK signed the Geneva Protocol and acceded to the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) in 1987, it is suspected of maintaining an ongoing biological weapons program. Defectors from the DPRK and the defense agencies of the United States and South Korea generally agree that the country began to acquire a biological weapons capability in the early 1960s under the orders of Kim Il Sung. [15] However, open source information on the DPRK's biological weapons program varies considerably. The 2012 Defense White Paper by South Korea's Ministry of National Defense, estimates that the DPRK possesses the causative agents of anthrax, and smallpox, among others. [16] The US Secretary of Defense annual report indicates that the DPRK possesses a potentially robust biological warfare capability. [17]


North Korea is not a signatory to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). [18] The DPRK’s pursuit of chemical weapons dates back to 1954.  It most likely obtained indigenous offensive CW production capabilities in the early 1980s. [19] The DPRK's CW agent production capability is estimated to be up to 4,500 metric tons during a typical year and 12,000 tons per year during a period of crisis, with a current inventory of 2,500 to 5,000 tons. [20]

Pyongyang has concentrated on acquiring mustard, phosgene, sarin, and V-type chemical agents. [21] Reports indicate that the DPRK has approximately 12 facilities where raw chemicals, precursors, and actual agents are produced and/or stored, as well as six major storage depots for chemical weapons. [22] The United Nations Human Rights Council reported that North Korea may have tested chemical weapons on prisoners and the disabled in February 2014, though they could not independently confirm the accuracy of defector testimony. [23] Pyongyang also has placed thousands of artillery systems — including multiple launch rocket systems that would be particularly effective for chemical weapons delivery — within range of the Demilitarized Zone and Seoul. [24]


North Korea began its missile development program in the 1970s and tested a Scud-B ballistic missile by April 1984. [25] North Korea is not a member of the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR). [26]

In its short-range arsenal, Pyongyang has produced the 500km-range Scud-C, the 700km-range Scud-D, and the solid-fueled KN-02, which is an upgraded version of the Russian SS-21 "Scarab" with a slightly longer range of about 120km. In its medium and intermediate-range arsenal, North Korea has the 1,300km-range missile known as the Nodong (Rodong), which it initially tested in 1993 (500km). [27] North Korea has deployed between 175 and 200 Nodong missiles. [28] Pyongyang has also displayed its Musudan IRBM in parades, although it has never flight-tested the missile. A yet-unnamed Nodong-variant was also displayed in October 2010, which possesses visible similarities to Iran's Ghadr-1. [29] North Korea's Taepodong-1 (Paektusan-1), an 1800km-range space launch vehicle has also been flight-tested. North Korea's three-stage Taepodong/ Unha SLV has been tested with varied success. [30]

North Korea agreed to a moratorium on long-range missile tests in exchange for food aid from the U.S. on 29 February 2012. [31] However, on 12 April, it attempted to launch the Kwangmyong-3 satellite into orbit using an Unha-3 launch vehicle. The launch failed after approximately 80 seconds, and the debris landed off the western coast of South Korea. The U.S. government withdrew its offer of food aid because it considered the space launch, which relied on missile technology, a violation of the bilateral agreement as well as UN Security Council Resolutions 1718 and 1874. [32] On 15 April 2012, North Korea displayed six never before seen missiles in a parade in honor of its founder Kim Il Sung. These missiles, known externally as KN-08s (Hwasong-13), are likely only mock-ups. [33] The missiles were displayed on six trucks of Chinese-origin that were converted to transporter-erector-launchers (TELs). [34] On 12 December 2012, North Korea reattempted its Unha-3 launch, successfully putting a Kwangmyong-3 satellite into orbit. [35] This test proved a significant advancement in North Korean missile technology. With only slight modifications for re-entry the rocket could deliver a very small payload, though without great accuracy. As of October 2014, North Korea has completed upgrades to launch pads at the Sohae Satellite Launching Station, potentially allowing the country to launch rockets larger than the Unha-3. [36]

Pyongyang has also tested anti-ship cruise missiles numerous times since 1994. The North Korean missile identified as the AG-1 is based on the Chinese CSSC-3 'Seersucker'. Anti-ship cruise missile tests on 25 May and 7 June 2007 are believed to have been either the KN-01 or the Chinese-made CSSC-3 'Seersucker'. [37] In June 2014, North Korea released propaganda footage showing what appears to be a variant of the Russian Kh-35 anti-ship cruise missile. Kim Jong Un observed a launch of the kh-35 on 7 February 2015. [38] North Korea has added to its list of test launches a series of short-range rockets in the summer of 2014, the SLBM Polaris-1 in May 2015 from a submerged barge, and a failed KN-11 SLBM in November 2015. [39]  In September 2015, DPRK state media announced plans for another long-range rocket test, although satellite imagery show little activity at Sohae. [40] 

[1] "North Korea's Nuclear and Missile Programs," International Crisis Group Asia Report N°168, 18 June 2009, www.crisisgroup.org. U.S. analysts have been skeptical of North Korea's claim, citing its history of past deception. Some U.S. estimates have cited 50-60kg of Pu-239. "Jane's CBRN Assessments, Production Capability: Nuclear, Korea, North," Jane's Information Group, 7 January 2010.
[2] Siegfried S. Hecker, "A Return Trip to North Korea's Yongbyon Nuclear Complex," Center for International Security and Cooperation, Stanford University, 20 November 2010, http://iis-db.stanford.edu.
[3] "Jane's CBRN Assessments, Key Facts: Nuclear, Korea, North," Jane's Information Group, 7 January 2010; "제3차 지하핵시험을 성공적으로 진행 [Third Underground Nuclear Test Conducted Successfully]," KCNA, 12 February 2013, www.kcna.kp.
[4] “Why a Nuclear Test May Not Be Imminent: Update on North Korean Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Site,” 38 North, 13 May 2014, http://38north.org; “NK Nuclear Test Site Shows Increased Activity: Seoul,” Yonhap News Agency, 4 April 2014, http://english.yonhapnews.co.kr.
[5] Steven Lee Myers and Choe Sang-hun, “North Koreans Agree to Freeze Nuclear Work; U.S. to Give Aid,” New York Times, 29 February 2012, www.nytimes.com.
[6] "DPRK Rejects UNSC's Act to Violate DPRK's Legitimate Right to Launch Satellite," KCNA, 17 April 2012, www.kcna.co.jp; "KCNA Reports on Successful 3rd Underground Nuclear Test," KCNA, 12 February 2013.
[7] “DPRK to Adjust Uses of Existing Nuclear Facilities,” KCNA, 2 April 2013, www.kcna.co.jp. Independent analysis confirms activity taking place at Yongbyon during this time, see: Nick Hansen and Jeffery Lewis, “Satellite Images Show New Construction at North Korea’s Plutonium Production Reactor; Rapid Restart?,” 38North, 3 April 2013, http://38north.org.
[8] Nick Hansen and Jeffrey Lewis, “North Korea Restarting its 5 MW Reactor,” 38 North, 11 September 2013, http://38north.org.
[9] Beth Duff-Brown, "Hecker Responds to NKorea Intent to Expand Nuclear Arsenal," Center for International Security and Cooperation, 10 April 2013, http://cisac.stanford.edu.
[10] David Albright and Serena Kelleher-Vergantini, "Yongbyon: Centrifuge Enrichment Plant Expands while 5 MWe Reactor is Possibly Shut Down," Institute for Science and International Security, 3 October 2014, www.isis-online.org; Nick Hansen, "North Korea's Yongbyon Nuclear Facility; Reactor Shutdown Continues; Activity at Reprocessing Facility," 38 North, 19 November 2014, http://38north.org. 
[11] "North Korea's Chemical and Biological Weapons Programs," International Crisis Group, 18 June 2009, www.crisisgroup.org.
[12] Anna Fifield, “North Korea is Stepping Up Uranium Production-But for Power or Nukes,” The Washington Post, August 13 2015, www.washingtonpost.com.
[13] "Kim Jong Un Visits Reconstructed Pyongchon Revolutionary Site," Rodong Sinmun, 10 December 2015, rodong.rep.kp.

[14] "CTBTO Executive Secretary Lassina Zerbo on the unusual seismic event detected in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea." CTBTO Preparatory Commission. Last modified January 6, 2016. https://www.ctbto.org
[15] William Mugford and Jack Liu, “North Korea’s Yongbyon Nuclear Facility: New Activity at the Plutonium Production Complex,” 38 North, 8 September 2015, www.38north.org.
[16] Republic of Korea, Ministry of National Defense, “2012 Defense White Paper,” 11 December 2012, p. 36, www.mnd.go.kr.
[17] Office of the Secretary of Defense, “Military and Security Developments Involving the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea 2013,” 4 February 2014, via: www.defense.gov.
[18] Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons,"Non-Member States," www.opcw.org.
[19] "North Korea's Chemical and Biological Weapons Programs," International Crisis Group, 18 June 2009, www.crisisgroup.org.
[20] Joseph Bermudez Jr., “North Korea’s Chemical Warfare Capabilities,” 38 North, 11 October 2013, http://38north.org.
[21] "Strategic Weapon System, Korea, North," Jane's Sentinel Security Assessment, 5 July 2010.
[22] UN Human Rights Council, "Report of the Detailed Finds of the Commission of Inquiry on Human Rights in the Democratic People's Republic of Korea," A/HRC/25/CRP.1, p.93, 7 February 2014, www.un.org.
[23] "Strategic Weapon System, Korea, North," Jane's Sentinel Security Assessment, 5 July 2010.
[24] “North Korea’s Missile Program,” BBC News25 March 2014, www.bbc.com.
[25] Missile Technology Control Regime, “MTCR Partners,” www.mtcr.info.
[26] Tae-Hyung Kim, “North Korea’s Missile Development and Its Impact on South Korea’s Missile Development and ROK-U.S. Alliance,” Korea Observer, Winter 2008, pp. 582-583.
[27] Daniel A. Pinkston, "North Korea Displays Ballistic Missiles During Military Parade, Some for First Time," WMD Insights, June 2007, www.wmdinsights.com.
[28] Joshua Pollack, "Another North Korean Missile First," Arms Control Wonk, 10 October 2010, www.armscontrolwonk.com; Doug Richardson, "Iran test-flies solid-propellant ballistic missile," Jane's Missiles and Rockets, 2 December 2008.
[29] "Strategic Weapon System, Korea, North," Jane's Sentinel Security Assessment, 20 January 2011.
[30] Steven Lee Myers and Choe Sang-hun, “North Koreans Agree to Freeze Nuclear Work; U.S. to Give Aid,” New York Times, 29 February 2012, www.nytimes.com.
[31] Evan Ramstad and Laura Meckler, "North Korean Launch Fails," The Wall Street Journal, 13 April 2012, http://online.wsj.com.
[32] Jeffrey Lewis, "Real Fake Missiles?," Arms Control Wonk, 1 May 2012, http://lewis.armscontrolwonk.com.
[33] Melissa Hanham, "North Korea's Procurement Network Strikes Again: Examining How Chinese Missile Hardware Ended Up in Pyongyang," NTI Issue Brief, 31 July 2012, www.nti.org.
[34] Kim Eun-jung, "S. Korea, U.S. Assess N. Korea's Rocket Launch as Success," Yonhap, 12 December 2012, http://english.yonhapnews.co.kr.
[35] Nick Hansen, "North Korea's Sohae Satellite Launching Station: Major Upgrade Program Completed; Facility Operational Again," 38 North, 1 October 2014, http://38north.org.
[36] "Strategic Weapon System, Korea, North," Jane's Sentinel Security Assessment, 20 January 2011.
[37] Jeffrey Lewis, “Translating a Noun into a Verb Pyongyang Style: The Case of North Korea’s New Cruise Missile,” 38 North, 16 June 2014, http://38north.org.
[38] “Kim Jong Un Watches Newly-Developed Anti-Ship Rocket Test-firing,” Rodong Sinmun, 7 February 2015, http://www.rodong.rep.kp.
[39] "N. Korea Apparently Fires Two Ballistic Missiles: Seoul," Yonhap News Agency, 13 July 2014, http://english.yonhapnews.co.kr; Jeffrey Lewis, “DPRK SLBM Test,” Arms Control Wonk, 13 May 2015, http://lewis.armscontrolwonk.com; Kim Kwang Tae, "N. Korea apparently fails to launch ballistic missile from sub," Yonhap News Agency, 28 November 2015, www.yonhapnews.co.kr. 
[40] Choe Sang-Hun, “North Korea Says It Is Bolstering Its Nuclear Arsenal,” The New York Times, September 15 2015, www.nytimes.com; Jack Liu and Joseph S. Bermudez Jr., "North Korea: Update on Activity at Sohae Satellite Launching Station," 38 North, 9 October 2015, http://38north.org.

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This material is produced independently for NTI by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of and has not been independently verified by NTI or its directors, officers, employees, or agents. Copyright 2015.

Get the Facts on North Korea

  • Conducted nuclear tests in 2006, 2009, and 2013
  • Not party to the CWC and believed to possess 2,500-5,000 metric tons of chemical weapons
  • Active exporter of ballistic missile components, technology, and design data