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North Korea


Last Updated: May, 2017

The Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) has an active nuclear weapons program and tested nuclear explosive devices in 2006, 2009, 2013, and twice in 2016. The DPRK is also capable of enriching uranium and producing weapons-grade plutonium. North Korea deploys short- and medium-range ballistic missiles and successfully launched long-range rockets in 2012 and 2016. 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 weapons program in defiance of the BTWC.

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North Korea's interest in a nuclear weapons program dates 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 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 five nuclear weapons tests in 2006, 2009, 2013, and twice in 2016 claiming that the January 2016 test was a thermonuclear device; however, experts remain skeptical. [3] [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 February 29, 2012. [5] However, after a dispute with the United States over the launch of a rocket in April 2012, North Korea declared the agreement void, and 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 ongoing 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, although this claim was met with much skepticism from the international community. [13] On January 6, 2016 North Korea conducted a fourth nuclear test. [14] Despite the test, and subsequent claim it was a hydrogen bomb, experts continue to doubt North Korea’s thermonuclear capabilities. Some speculate the test could have been a boosted fission device; however, it is not possible to determine the device’s nature unless a radionuclide monitoring station captures particles in the atmosphere for analysis, which did not occur. [15] The test prompted widespread international condemnation. Even China, a traditional ally of the regime, endorsed a UN resolution to apply further sanctions against North Korea. [16]

On September 9, 2016, the anniversary of the founding of North Korea, the U.S. Geological Survey detected a 5.3 magnitude earthquake at North Korea's nuclear testing site. [17] North Korea quickly confirmed it had carried out a 5th nuclear test in a defiant statement. [18] The regime claimed it had successfully built a warhead small enough to fit onto the end of a missile and warned its “enemies” that is has the ability to counter any attacks. [19] Estimates place the explosion's yield between 10 and 20 kilotons and most experts believe the explosion was larger than all previous tests carried out by the regime. [20] The test drew sharp international condemnation. President Obama called the test "a grave threat" and stated that the regime's actions have only destabilized the region. China, North Korea's only major ally, joined in condemning the test and urged the regime to refrain from provocative actions. [21]


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 defense agencies in 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. [22] However, open source information on the DPRK's biological weapons program varies. 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. [23] The U.S. Secretary of Defense’s 2014 report indicated that the DPRK possesses a potentially robust biological warfare capability. [24]


North Korea is not a signatory to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). [25] The DPRK’s pursuit of chemical weapons dates to 1954. It most likely obtained indigenous offensive CW production capabilities in the early 1980s. [26] 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. [27]

Pyongyang has concentrated on acquiring mustard, phosgene, sarin, and V-type chemical agents. [28] 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. [29] 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 testimony. [30] 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. [31]


North Korea began its missile development program in the 1970s and tested a Scud-B ballistic missile in April 1984. [32] North Korea is not a member of the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR). [33]

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). [34] North Korea has deployed between 175 and 200 Nodong missiles. [35] Pyongyang has also displayed its Musudan IRBM in parades. A yet-unnamed Nodong-variant was also displayed in October 2010, which possesses visible similarities to Iran's Ghadr-1. [36] 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 two successful launches as of March 2016. [37]

North Korea agreed to a moratorium on long-range missile tests in exchange for food aid from the United States in February 2012. [38] However, in April 2012 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, to be a violation of the bilateral agreement as well as UN Security Council Resolutions 1718 and 1874. [39] Subsequently, 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), were likely only mock-ups. [40] The missiles were displayed on six trucks of Chinese-origin that were converted to transporter-erector-launchers (TELs). [41] More recently, in October 2015, North Korea displayed a new version of the KN-08 with a smaller, less conical warhead. [42]

On December 12, 2012, North Korea reattempted its Unha-3 launch, successfully putting a Kwangmyong-3 satellite into orbit. [43] This test proved a significant advancement in North Korean missile technology. In order to deliver a nuclear payload, the rocket would require the addition of a re-entry vehicle which requires technology and advanced materials experts believe the regime is still working on acquiring. [44] In October 2014, North Korea completed upgrades to launch pads at the Sohae Satellite Launching Station, potentially allowing the country to launch rockets larger than the Unha-3. [45] On February 7, 2016, North Korea used the station to successfully launch the Kwangmyongsong-4 satellite into low earth orbit using the Unha-3 rocket. [46] The launch was widely condemned by the international community as a test of North Korea’s ballistic missile capabilities, which, in conjunction with its January 2016 nuclear test, triggered another round of UN sanctions against the country. [47]

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 May 25 and June 7, 2007 are believed to have been either the KN-01 or the Chinese-made CSSC-3 'Seersucker'. [48] 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 February 7, 2015. [49]

North Korea has added to its list of test launches a series of short-range rockets, including the SLBM-Polaris 1 in the summer of 2014; a test from a submerged barge in May 2015; and a failed KN-11 SLBM test in November 2015. [50] In January 2016, shortly after the nuclear test, North Korea released footage purportedly showing an SLBM test. Later analysis of the footage by a team of experts proved it was a false claim. [51] On March 9, 2016, North Korea released photographs of Kim Jong Un inspecting what appears to be a miniaturized implosion device in front of several partially assembled KN-08 mod 1 and mod 2 rockets. [52] On March 15, 2016, North Korea announced plans to conduct another nuclear test along with more missile tests. [53]

On March 24, 2016, North Korea tested a solid-fueled rocket motor. [54] Only a month later on April 23, North Korea tested what experts believe was a genuine solid-fueled SLBM (in contrast to the falsified 2014 test). [55] The missile flew only 30 km, well below the expected range of 300 km according to South Korea's Joint Chiefs of Staff. [56] Only a few months later, however, on August 24, North Korea performed a second SLBM test, this time launching a missile 500 km which landed in Japan's air defense identification zone. [57]

North Korea also accompanied these SLBM tests with a string of tests of its Nodong missile, its hitherto untested Musudan missile, and a new extended range Scud. Between April and June of 2016, North Korea tested the Musudan six times. The first five tests were failures, however, the sixth appears to have been a success with the missile flying over 400 km. [58] In addition, North Korea also carried out a test of the Nodong missile. On August 2nd North Korea launched two missiles one of which traveled about 1,000 km and landed only 250 km west of Japan, in the Japanese Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). [59] On September 5th, in the middle of the 2016 G20 Hangzhou summit, North Korea carried out a simultaneous test of three never before seen Scud-ER missiles which landed about 200 km west of Japan. [60] The new missile is similar in size to the Scuds usually employed by the regime but can travel almost twice as far. [61] The test drew a sharp rebuke from members of the summit and from China who stated that the test damaged the peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula. [62]

[1] "North Korea's Nuclear and Missile Programs," International Crisis Group Asia Report N°168, June 18, 2009, 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, January 7, 2010.
[2] Siegfried S. Hecker, "A Return Trip to North Korea's Yongbyon Nuclear Complex," Center for International Security and Cooperation, Stanford University, November 20, 2010,
[3] Anna Fifield, "North Korea conducts fifth nuclear test, claims it has made warheads with ‘higher strike power,'" The Washington Post, September 9, 2016,
[4] Warrick, Joby, "A North Korean H-bomb? Not likely, experts say," Washington Post, January 6, 2016,
[5] Steven Lee Myers and Choe Sang-hun, "North Koreans Agree to Freeze Nuclear Work; U.S. to Give Aid," New York Times, February 29, 2012,
[6] "DPRK Rejects UNSC's Act to Violate DPRK's Legitimate Right to Launch Satellite," KCNA, April 17, 2012,; "KCNA Reports on Successful 3rd Underground Nuclear Test," KCNA, February 12, 2013.
[7] "DPRK to Adjust Uses of Existing Nuclear Facilities," KCNA, April 2, 2013, 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, April 3, 2013,
[8] Nick Hansen and Jeffrey Lewis, "North Korea Restarting its 5 MW Reactor," 38 North, September 11, 2013,
[9] Beth Duff-Brown, "Hecker Responds to NKorea Intent to Expand Nuclear Arsenal," Center for International Security and Cooperation, April 10, 2013,
[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, October 3, 2014,; Nick Hansen, "North Korea's Yongbyon Nuclear Facility; Reactor Shutdown Continues; Activity at Reprocessing Facility," 38 North, November 19, 2014,
[11] "North Korea's Chemical and Biological Weapons Programs," International Crisis Group, June 18, 2009,
[12] Anna Fifield, "North Korea is Stepping Up Uranium Production-But for Power or Nukes," The Washington Post, August 13, 2015,
[13] "Kim Jong Un Visits Reconstructed Pyongchon Revolutionary Site," Rodong Sinmun, December 10, 2015,
[14] David E Sanger and Choe Sang-Hun, "North Korea Says It Has Detonated Its First Hydrogen Bomb," The New York Times, January 5, 2016,
[15] Declan Butler and Elizabeth Gibney, "What kind of bomb did North Korea test?" Nature, January 8, 2016.
[16] Rick Gladstone and David E. Sanger, "New Sanctions on North Korea Pass in Unified U.N. Vote," The New York Times, March 7, 2016,
[17] Anna Fifield, "North Korea conducts fifth nuclear test, claims it has made warheads with ‘higher strike power,'" The Washington Post, September 9, 2016,
[18] Anna Fifield, "North Korea conducts fifth nuclear test, claims it has made warheads with ‘higher strike power,'" The Washington Post, September 9, 2016,
[19] Anna Fifield, "North Korea conducts fifth nuclear test, claims it has made warheads with ‘higher strike power,'" The Washington Post, September 9, 2016,
[20] Anna Fifield, "North Korea conducts fifth nuclear test, claims it has made warheads with ‘higher strike power,'" The Washington Post, September 9, 2016,
[21] Jesse Byrnes, "US, China condemn North Korea nuclear test," The Hill, September 9, 2016,
[22] William Mugford and Jack Liu, "North Korea's Yongbyon Nuclear Facility: New Activity at the Plutonium Production Complex," 38 North, September 8, 2015,
[23] Republic of Korea, Ministry of National Defense, "2012 Defense White Paper," December 11, 2012, p. 36,
[24] Office of the Secretary of Defense, "Military and Security Developments Involving the Democratic People's Republic of Korea 2013," February 4, 2014, via:
[25] Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, "Non-Member States,"
[26] "North Korea's Chemical and Biological Weapons Programs," International Crisis Group, June 18, 2009,
[27] Joseph Bermudez Jr., "North Korea's Chemical Warfare Capabilities," 38 North, October 11, 2013,
[28] "Strategic Weapon System, Korea, North," Jane's Sentinel Security Assessment, July 5, 2010.
[29] 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, February 7, 2014,
[30] "Strategic Weapon System, Korea, North," Jane's Sentinel Security Assessment, July 5, 2010.
[31] "North Korea's Missile Program," BBC News, March 25, 2014,
[32] Missile Technology Control Regime, "MTCR Partners,"
[33] 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.
[34] Daniel A. Pinkston, "North Korea Displays Ballistic Missiles during Military Parade, Some for First Time," WMD Insights, June 2007,
[35] Joshua Pollack, "Another North Korean Missile First," Arms Control Wonk, October 10, 2010,; Doug Richardson, "Iran test-flies solid-propellant ballistic missile," Jane's Missiles and Rockets, December 2, 2008.
[36] "Strategic Weapon System, Korea, North," Jane's Sentinel Security Assessment, January 20, 2011.
[37] Schilling, John, "North Korea's Space Launch: An Initial Assessment," 38 North, February 9, 2016,
[38] Evan Ramstad and Laura Meckler, "North Korean Launch Fails," The Wall Street Journal, April 13, 2012,
[39] Jeffrey Lewis, "Real Fake Missiles?" Arms Control Wonk, May 1, 2012,
[40] Melissa Hanham, "North Korea's Procurement Network Strikes Again: Examining How Chinese Missile Hardware Ended Up in Pyongyang," NTI Issue Brief, July 31, 2012,
[41] Kim Eun-jung, "S. Korea, U.S. Assess N. Korea's Rocket Launch as Success," Yonhap, December 12, 2012,
[42] Fisher, Robert D, "North Korea unveils new version of KN-08 ICBM," IHS Jane's, October 12, 2015,
[43] Nick Hansen, "North Korea's Sohae Satellite Launching Station: Major Upgrade Program Completed; Facility Operational Again," 38 North, October 1, 2014,
[44] 38North, "Location of KN-08 Reentry Vehicle Nosecone Test Identified," 38 North, March 23, 2016,
[45] "Strategic Weapon System, Korea, North," Jane's Sentinel Security Assessment, January 20, 2011.
[46] Schilling, John, "North Korea's Space Launch: An Initial Assessment," 38 North, February 9, 2016,
[47] Rick Gladstone and David E. Sanger, "New Sanctions on North Korea Pass in Unified U.N. Vote," The New York Times, March 7, 2016,
[48] Jeffrey Lewis, "Translating a Noun into a Verb Pyongyang Style: The Case of North Korea's New Cruise Missile," 38 North, June 16, 2014,
[49] "Kim Jong Un Watches Newly-Developed Anti-Ship Rocket Test-firing," Rodong Sinmun, February 7, 2015,
[50] "N. Korea Apparently Fires Two Ballistic Missiles: Seoul," Yonhap News Agency, July 13, 2014,; Jeffrey Lewis, "DPRK SLBM Test," Arms Control Wonk, May 13, 2015,; Kim Kwang Tae, "N. Korea apparently fails to launch ballistic missile from sub," Yonhap News Agency, November 28, 2015,
[51] Pearson, James, "North Korea faked missile test footage: U.S. experts," Reuters, January 12, 2015,
[52] Schmerler, Dave, "N. Korea counters doubts with 'miniaturized' bomb photo," NK News, March 10, 2015,
[53] "N. Korea to 'soon' conduct nuke warhead, ballistic missile tests," Yonhap News Agency, March 15, 2016.
[54] Sang-Hun, Chang, “North Korea Tests New Rocket Engine, State Media Says,” The New York Times, March 24, 2016,
[55] John Schilling, "A New Submarine-Launched Ballistic Missile for North Korea," 38 North, April 25, 2016.
[56] Kin Tong-Hyung, "Seoul: N. Korea appears to fire submarine-launched missile," AP, April 23, 2016.
[57] Ju-min Park and Jack Kim, "North Korea fires submarine-launched ballistic missile towards Japan," Reuters, August 24, 2016.
[58] Justin McCurry, "North Korea: UN security council 'to meet' after missile tests," The Guardian, June 22, 2016,
[59] K.J. Kwon, Joshua Berlinger and Jason Hanna, "North Korea fires 2 ballistic missiles, South Korea and U.S. say," CNN, August 3, 2016,
[60] Gabriel Dominguez and Neil Gibson, "North Korean 'Scud-ER' missile can reach US naval base in Japan, says report," IHS Jane's, June 28, 2016,
[61] Gabriel Dominguez and Neil Gibson, "North Korean 'Scud-ER' missile can reach US naval base in Japan, says report," IHS Jane's, June 28, 2016,
[62] Su-Hyun Lee, "North Korea Test-Fires 3 Missiles Toward Japan, Seoul Says," The New York Times, September 5, 2016,

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