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Overview Last updated: February, 2014

The Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) has an active nuclear weapons program and tested nuclear explosive devices in 2006, 2009, and 2013. 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. 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), but is suspected of maintaining an offensive biological weapons program in defiance of that treaty.

Nuclear
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 three nuclear weapons tests in 2006, 2009 and 2013.[3]

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.[4] 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.[5] 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.[6] By August 2013, satellite imagery confirmed steam venting from the 5MW reactor's turbine and generator building.[7]

Biological

Although the DPRK 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.[8] However, open source information on the DPRK's biological weapons program varies considerably. The 2010 Defense White Paper by South Korea's Ministry of National Defense, estimates that the DPRK possesses the causative agents of anthrax, smallpox, and cholera, among others.[9]

Chemical

The DPRK’s pursuit of chemical weapons dates back to 1954.  It most likely obtained indigenous offensive CW production capabilities in the early 1980s.[10] The DPRK's CW agent production capability is estimated to be up to 5,000 metric tons per year. Pyongyang has concentrated on acquiring mustard, phosgene, sarin, and V-type chemical agents.[11] 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.[12] Pyongyang also has placed thousands of artillery systems — including multiple launch rocket systems that would be particularly effective for chemical weapons delivery — within reach of the Demilitarized Zone and Seoul.[13] North Korea has not signed the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC).

Missile

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

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), and again in 2006. North Korea has deployed between 175 and 200 Nodong missiles.[14] Pyongyang has also displayed its Musudan IRBM in parades, although it has never flight tested it. A yet-unnamed Nodong-variant was also displayed in October 2010, which possesses visible similarities to Iran's Ghadr-1.[15] 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.[16]

North Korea agreed to a moratorium on long-range missile tests in exchange for food aid from the U.S. on 29 February 2012.[17] 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.[18] On 15 April, 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, are likely only mock-ups.[19] The missiles were displayed on six trucks of Chinese-origin that were converted to transporter-erector-launchers (TELs).[20] On 12 December 2012, North Korea reattempted its Unha-3 launch, successfully putting a Kwangmyong-3 satellite into orbit.[21] This test proves 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.

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'.[22]

Sources:

[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 Uunderground Nuclear Test Conducted Successfully]," KCNA, 12 February 2013, www.kcna.kp.
[4] 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.
[5] "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.
[6] “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.
[7] Nick Hansen and Jeffery Lewis, “Update on Yongbyon,” 38 North, 11 September 2013, http://38north.org; Nick Hansen, "More Evidence that North Korea has Restarted Its 5 MWe Reactor," 38 North, 2 October 2013, http://38north.org.
[8] "North Korea's Chemical and Biological Weapons Programs," International Crisis Group, 18 June 2009, www.crisisgroup.org.
[9] Namgung Min, "국방부 방北, 최대 5천t 화학무기 보유 [Ministry of National Defense: North Korea posses maximum 5000 tons of biochemical weapon]," Daily NK, 5 October 2010, www.dailynk.com.
[10] "North Korea's Chemical and Biological Weapons Programs," International Crisis Group, 18 June 2009, www.crisisgroup.org.
[11] "Strategic Weapon System, Korea, North," Jane's Sentinel Security Assessment, 5 July 2010; Oh Ju-hwan, "개발 위해 생체 실험 자행’ 北생화학무기 [Conducting medical experiments on living bodies to develop bio-chemical weapons]," FNK Radio, 23 October 2009, www.fnkradio.com.
[12] "Strategic Weapon System, Korea, North," Jane's Sentinel Security Assessment, 5 July 2010.
[13] "Strategic Weapon System, Korea, North," Jane's Sentinel Security Assessment, 5 July 2010.
[14] Daniel A. Pinkston, "North Korea Displays Ballistic Missiles During Military Parade, Some for First Time," WMD Insights, June 2007, www.wmdinsights.com.
[15] 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.
[16] "Strategic Weapon System, Korea, North," Jane's Sentinel Security Assessment, 20 January 2011.
[17] 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.
[18] Evan Ramstad and Laura Meckler, "North Korean Launch Fails," The Wall Street Journal, 13 April 2012, http://online.wsj.com.
[19] Jeffrey Lewis, "Real Fake Missiles?," Arms Control Wonk, 1 May 2012, http://lewis.armscontrolwonk.com.
[20] 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.
[21] Kim Eun-jung, "S. Korea, U.S. Assess N. Korea's Rocket Launch as Success," Yonhap, 12 December 2012, http://english.yonhapnews.co.kr.
[22] "Strategic Weapon System, Korea, North," Jane's Sentinel Security Assessment, 20 January 2011.

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This material is produced independently for NTI by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey 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.

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