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North Korea

Overview

Last Updated: April, 2018

North Korea (formally, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea or DPRK), has active and increasingly sophisticated nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs, and is believed to possess chemical and biological weapons capabilities.

North Korea unilaterally withdrew from the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) in January 2003, is not a party to the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT), and has conducted six increasingly sophisticated nuclear tests since 2006. The DPRK is not a party to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), and is believed to possess a large chemical weapons program. Despite being a state party to the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) and Geneva Protocol, evidence suggests North Korea may maintain an offensive biological weapons program.

In defiance of the international community, which has imposed heavy sanctions on North Korea for its illicit behavior, the country has continued to escalate its WMD activities. In July 2017, North Korea successfully tested its first intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), and in September 2017 it conducted a test of what it claimed was a thermonuclear weapon. [1]

On 9 March 2018, South Korean officials announced that North Korean leader Kim Jong-un was “committed to denuclearization,” would “refrain from any further nuclear and missile tests” and wished to meet U.S. President Donald Trump. [2] Trump accepted the invitation to a face-to-face meeting, to be held in May 2018. [3] The meeting, if it takes place, would be the first in history between leaders of the United States and North Korea. During a visit to Beijing on March 28, 2018, Kim announced that North Korea was “committed to the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula,” although experts have cautioned against the interpretation that North Korea is willing to relinquish its nuclear weapons. [4] Additionally, Kim Jong-un and South Korean president Moon Jae-in agreed to hold the first meeting between leaders of the two Koreas since 2007 on April 27, 2018. [5]



*Graphic shows DPRK capabilities as of February 2018

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Nuclear

North Korea’s nuclear ambitions date to the Korean War in the 1950s, but came to the attention of the international community in 1992, when the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) discovered that its nuclear activities were more extensive than declared. [6] The revelations led North Korea to withdraw from the IAEA in 1994. In an effort to prevent North Korean withdrawal from the NPT, the United States and North Korea negotiated the Agreed Framework, in which Pyongyang agreed to freeze its nuclear activities and give access to IAEA inspectors in exchange for U.S.-supplied light water reactors and energy assistance. [7] The Agreed Framework broke down in 2002. [8] North Korea unilaterally withdrew from the NPT in January 2003, prompting China, Japan, Russia, South Korea, and the United States to engage North Korea in the Six-Party Talks in a further attempt at a diplomatic solution to the country’s nuclear program. The talks fell apart in 2009, and no serious diplomatic initiatives to denuclearize North Korea have occurred since. However, denuclearization is widely expected to be on the agenda of the planned summit between Kim Jong-un and President Donald Trump in May 2018. [9] North Korea produces both weapons-useable plutonium and enriched uranium, with one U.S. government estimate in 2017 suggesting the country may be producing enough nuclear material each year for 12 additional nuclear weapons. [10]

Biological

North Korea signed the Geneva Protocol and acceded to the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) in 1987. U.S. intelligence sources consider North Korea capable of biological weapons production and weaponization. [11] However, open source information on the status of the DPRK's biological weapons program varies. The 2016 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. [12] The U.S. Secretary of Defense’s 2015 report assesses that North Korea may consider the use of biological weapons as an option, contrary to its obligations under the Biological and Toxins Weapons Convention (BTWC), but does not reference specific agent stockpiles. [13]

Chemical

North Korea is not a signatory to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). [14] The DPRK’s pursuit of chemical weapons dates to 1954, and it most likely obtained indigenous offensive CW production capabilities in the early 1980s. [15] A South Korean 2016 Defense White Paper estimates that North Korea has stockpiled between 2,500 and 5,000 tons of CW agent. [16]

Pyongyang has concentrated on acquiring mustard, phosgene, sarin, and V-type chemical agents. Reports indicate that the DPRK has approximately 12 facilities where raw chemicals, precursors, and agents are produced and/or stored, as well as six major storage depots for chemical weapons. [17] The United Nations Human Rights Council reported that North Korea may have tested chemical weapons on prisoners and the disabled in February 2014, though it could not independently confirm the accuracy of defector accounts. [18] In February 2017, the half-brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, Kim Jong-nam, was assassinated in the Kuala Lumpur international airport. Following the attack, Malaysian officials announced that Kim Jong-nam was killed by suspected North Korean agents wielding the nerve agent VX. [19]

Missile

North Korea possesses a large and increasingly sophisticated ballistic missile program, and conducts frequent missile test launches, heightening East Asian tensions. In 2017, North Korea successfully tested the Hwasong-14 and Hwasong-15, its first ICBMs, which some experts believe gives North Korea the capability to deliver a nuclear payload anywhere in the United States. [20]

North Korea’s initiated its ballistic missile program in the late 1970s and early 1980s, when it acquired Soviet Scud-type missiles from Egypt and reverse-engineered them. [21] In the early 1990’s, with assistance from Iran and several other countries, North Korea began producing Nodong medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBM). [22] North Korea has developed and tested a number of new missiles since Kim Jong-un’s ascension to leadership in 2011, such as the Intermediate-Range Hwasong-12 and the Pukguksong solid fuel missiles. [23] In addition to its land-based ballistic missiles, North Korea has successfully tested a submarine-launched ballistic missile, the Pukguksong-1. [24] North Korea also has a Space Launch Vehicle, the Unha, which uses technologies closely related to its ballistic missiles. [25] North Korea is not a member of the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR).

Visit the CNS/NTI North Korea Missile Test Database for a comprehensive visualization of all of North Korea’s missile tests since 1984. Visit the North Korean Ballistic Missile Models page to interact with 3D models of North Korea’s missiles.

Sources:
[1] Gabriel Dominguez and Karl Dewey and Markus Schiller and Neil Gibson, “North Korea claims second ICBM test launch shows all of US is within range,” IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, 21 July 2107, www.janes.com. “Large nuclear test in North Korea on 3 September 2017,” Norwegian Seismic Array, 3 September 2017, www.norsar.no.
[2] “Trump and North Korea Talks: South Korean Statement in Full,” BBC News, 9 March 2018, www.bbc.com.
[3] Ali Vitali, “President Trump Agrees to Meet with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un,” NBC News, 9 March 2018, www.nbcnews.com.
[4] Jeffrey Lewis, “The Word That Could Help the World Avoid Nuclear War,” New York Times, 4 April 2018, www.nytimes.com.
[5] “2 Koreas Agree to Hold 1st Summit in Decade on April 27,” Kyodo News, 29 March 2018, english.kyodonews.net.
[6] “Application of Safeguards in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea,” IAEA, 2 September 2011, www.iaea.org.
[7] “The DPRK’s Violation of its NPT Safeguards Agreement with the IAEA,” IAEA, www.iaea.org.
[8] “CIA estimates on North Korea’s nuclear program provided to Congress on 19 November 2002,” Federation of American Scientists, www.fas.org.
[9] Austin Ramzy and Emily Cochrane, “Road to Talks Between the U.S. and North Korea Has Been Bumpy,” The New York Times, 9 March 2018, www.nytimes.com.
[10] Ankit Panda, “North Korea May Already Be Annually Accruing Enough Fissile Material for 12 Nuclear Weapons,” The Diplomat, 9 August 2017, www.thediplomat.com.
[11] “Unclassified Report to Congress on the Acquisition of Technology Relating to Weapons of Mass Destruction and Advanced Conventional Weapons, Covering 1 January to 31 December 2011,” Federation of American Scientists, www.fas.org.
[12] Republic of Korea, Ministry of National Defense, "2012 Defense White Paper," 11 December 2012, p. 36, www.mnd.go.kr.
[13] Office of the Secretary of Defense, "Military and Security Developments Involving the Democratic People's Republic of Korea 2015," www.defense.gov.
[14] Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, "Non-Member States," www.opcw.org.
[15] Joseph Bermudez Jr., "North Korea's Chemical Warfare Capabilities," 38 North, 11 October 2013, http://38north.org.
[16] "Strategic Weapon System, Korea, North," Jane's Sentinel Security Assessment, 5 July 2010.
[17] "Strategic Weapon System, Korea, North," Jane's Sentinel Security Assessment, 5 July 2010.
[18] 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.
[19] “Malaysian Police Say Kim Jong Nam Killed with VX Nerve Agent,” James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, 24 February 2017, Nonproliferation.org.
[20] Michael Elleman, “The New Hwasong-15 ICBM: A Significant Improvement That May Be Ready as Early as 2018,” 38 North, 30 November 2017, www.38north.org.
[21] Joseph S. Bermudez Jr., “Occasional Paper No.2: A History of Ballistic Missile Development in the DPRK,” James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, 1999, www.nonproliferation.org.
[22] “No Dong 1,” Center for Strategic and International Studies Missile Defense Project, www.missilethreat.csis.org.
[23] “The CNS North Korea Missile Database,” Nuclear Threat Initiative, www.nti.org.
[24] Ju-min Park and Jack Kim, “North Korea fires submarine-launched ballistic missile towards Japan,” Reuters, 23 August 2016, www.reuters.com.
[25] “The CNS North Korea Missile Database,” Nuclear Threat Initiative, www.nti.org.

Get the Facts on North Korea
  • Conducted nuclear tests in 2006, 2009, 2013, 2016, and 2017
  • 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

This material is produced independently for NTI by the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of and has not been independently verified by NTI or its directors, officers, employees, or agents. Copyright 2017.