North Korea Overview

North Korea Overview

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Background

This page is part of the North Korea Country Profile.

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

After years of heightened regional tensions and frequent North Korean nuclear and ballistic missile tests, early 2018 saw a thaw in diplomatic relations. In April, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un announced a halt to all nuclear and ICBM tests, and participated in a summit meeting with the leader of South Korea. 2 On 12 June 2018, Kim met with U.S. President Donald Trump in Singapore, the first face-to-face meeting between leaders of North Korea and the United States in history. At the summit, the DPRK pledged “to work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” 3

A post-summit stall in diplomatic talks was punctuated by North Korea’s resumption of short-range ballistic missile tests in May 2019, the first such tests in over 18 months. 4 In June 2020, North Korea marked the second anniversary of the Singapore summit by declaring its intention to bolster nuclear deterrence in the face of perceived U.S. threats. 5

Map and missiles

*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 ChinaJapanRussiaSouth 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 occurred until 2018. 9 At the June 2018 U.S.-North Korean summit, Kim Jong-un “reaffirmed his firm and unwavering commitment to complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula,” although North Korea’s definition of “denuclearization” is ambiguous. 10 No agreement on a method or timetable for dismantling North Korea’s nuclear weapons has been reached. 11 North Korean commitments to denuclearization were further called into question in July 2020 with the identification of a previously undeclared facility in Wollo-ri thought to be a nuclear warhead or component manufacturing site. 12 Vehicle traffic observed at the site through satellite imagery suggests that warhead or warhead component manufacturing continued during the 2018 summit and is ongoing.

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. 13

Biological

North Korea accede to the Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC) in 1987 and became party to the Geneva Protocol in 1988. U.S. intelligence sources consider North Korea capable of biological weapons production and weaponization. 14 However, open source information on the status of the DPRK’s biological weapons program tells a conflicting story. The 2018 Defense White Paper by South Korea’s Ministry of National Defense estimates that the DPRK possesses the causative agents of anthrax, smallpox, and plague, among others. 15 The U.S. Secretary of Defense’s 2017 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. 16

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. 17

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. 18 In the early 1990’s, with assistance from Iran and several other countries, North Korea began producing Nodong medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBM). 19 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 extended range (ER) Scud. 20 2019 and 2020 have seen numerous test launches of various models of solid-fueled short-range ballistic missiles. 21 In October 2020, North Korea displayed what appeared to be a solid-fuel ICBM at a military parade. 22

In addition to its land-based ballistic missiles, North Korea has successfully tested a submarine-launched ballistic missile, the Pukguksong-1. 23 North Korea also has a Space Launch Vehicle, the Unha, which uses technologies closely related to its ballistic missiles. 24 North Korea is not a member of the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR).

Chemical

North Korea is not a signatory to the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). 25 The DPRK’s pursuit of chemical weapons dates to 1954, and it most likely obtained indigenous offensive CW production capabilities in the early 1980s. 26 The South Korean 2018 Defense White Paper estimates that North Korea has stockpiled between 2,500 and 5,000 tons of CW agent. 27

Pyongyang has concentrated on acquiring mustardphosgenesarin, 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. 28 Allegations of chemical and biological weapons testing on prisoners and persons with disabilities have been made by North Korean defectors, but the accuracy of these testimonies is unconfirmed. 29 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. 30

Learn More

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

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Glossary

Nuclear weapon
Nuclear weapon: A device that releases nuclear energy in an explosive manner as the result of nuclear chain reactions involving fission, or fission and fusion, of atomic nuclei. Such weapons are also sometimes referred to as atomic bombs (a fission-based weapon); or boosted fission weapons (a fission-based weapon deriving a slightly higher yield from a small fusion reaction); or hydrogen bombs/thermonuclear weapons (a weapon deriving a significant portion of its energy from fusion reactions).
Ballistic missile
A delivery vehicle powered by a liquid or solid fueled rocket that primarily travels in a ballistic (free-fall) trajectory.  The flight of a ballistic missile includes three phases: 1) boost phase, where the rocket generates thrust to launch the missile into flight; 2) midcourse phase, where the missile coasts in an arc under the influence of gravity; and 3) terminal phase, in which the missile descends towards its target.  Ballistic missiles can be characterized by three key parameters - range, payload, and Circular Error Probable (CEP), or targeting precision.  Ballistic missiles are primarily intended for use against ground targets.
Chemical Weapon (CW)
The CW: The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons defines a chemical weapon as any of the following: 1) a toxic chemical or its precursors; 2) a munition specifically designed to deliver a toxic chemical; or 3) any equipment specifically designed for use with toxic chemicals or munitions. Toxic chemical agents are gaseous, liquid, or solid chemical substances that use their toxic properties to cause death or severe harm to humans, animals, and/or plants. Chemical weapons include blister, nerve, choking, and blood agents, as well as non-lethal incapacitating agents and riot-control agents. Historically, chemical weapons have been the most widely used and widely proliferated weapon of mass destruction.
Biological weapon (BW)
Biological weapons use microorganisms and natural toxins to produce disease in humans, animals, or plants.  Biological weapons can be derived from: bacteria (anthrax, plague, tularemia); viruses (smallpox, viral hemorrhagic fevers); rickettsia (Q fever and epidemic typhus); biological toxins (botulinum toxin, staphylococcus enterotoxin B); and fungi (San Joaquin Valley fever, mycotoxins). These agents can be deployed as biological weapons when paired with a delivery system, such as a missile or aerosol device.
Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT)
The NPT: Signed in 1968, the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) is the most widely adhered-to international security agreement. The “three pillars” of the NPT are nuclear disarmament, nonproliferation, and peaceful uses of nuclear energy. Article VI of the NPT commits states possessing nuclear weapons to negotiate in good faith toward halting the arms race and the complete elimination of nuclear weapons. The Treaty stipulates that non-nuclear-weapon states will not seek to acquire nuclear weapons, and will accept International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards on their nuclear activities, while nuclear weapon states commit not to transfer nuclear weapons to other states. All states have a right to the peaceful use of nuclear energy, and should assist one another in its development. The NPT provides for conferences of member states to review treaty implementation at five-year intervals. Initially of a 25-year duration, the NPT was extended indefinitely in 1995. For additional information, see the NPT.
Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty (CTBT)
The CTBT: Opened for signature in 1996 at the UN General Assembly, the CTBT prohibits all nuclear testing if it enters into force. The treaty establishes the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO) to ensure the implementation of its provisions and verify compliance through a global monitoring system upon entry into force. Pending the treaty’s entry into force, the Preparatory Commission of the CTBTO is charged with establishing the International Monitoring System (IMS) and promoting treaty ratifications. CTBT entry into force is contingent on ratification by 44 Annex II states. For additional information, see the CTBT.
Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC)
The Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) requires each state party to declare and destroy all the chemical weapons (CW) and CW production facilities it possesses, or that are located in any place under its jurisdiction or control, as well as any CW it abandoned on the territory of another state. The CWC was opened for signature on 13 January 1993, and entered into force on 29 April 1997. For additional information, see the CWC.
Biological and Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC)
The BTWC: The Convention on the Prohibition of the Development, Production and Stockpiling of Bacteriological (Biological) and Toxin Weapons and on Their Destruction (BTWC) prohibits the development, production, or stockpiling of bacteriological and toxin weapons. Countries must destroy or divert to peaceful purposes all agents, toxins, weapons, equipment, and means of delivery within nine months after the entry into force of the convention. The BTWC was opened for signature on April 10, 1972, and entered into force on March 26, 1975. In 1994, the BTWC member states created the Ad Hoc Group to negotiate a legally binding BTWC Protocol that would help deter violations of the BTWC. The draft protocol outlines a monitoring regime that would require declarations of dual-use activities and facilities, routine visits to declared facilities, and short-notice challenge investigations. For additional information, see the BTWC.
Geneva Protocol
Geneva Protocol: Formally known as the Protocol for the Prohibition of the Use in War of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or Other Gases, and of Bacteriological Methods of Warfare, this protocol prohibits the use in war of asphyxiating, poisonous, or other gases, and bans bacteriological warfare. It was opened for signature on 17 June 1925. For additional information, see the Geneva Protocol.
Sanctions
Punitive measures, for example economic in nature, implemented in response to a state's violation of its international obligations.
WMD (weapons of mass destruction)
WMD: Typically refers to nuclear, biological, or chemical weapons, though there is some debate as to whether chemical weapons qualify as weapons of “mass destruction.”
Intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM)
Intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM): A ballistic missile with a range greater than 5,500 km. See entry for ballistic missile.
Thermonuclear weapon
Thermonuclear weapon: A nuclear weapon in which the fusion of light nuclei, such as deuterium and tritium, leads to a significantly higher explosive yield than in a regular fission weapon. Thermonuclear weapons are sometimes referred to as staged weapons, because the initial fission reaction (the first stage) creates the condition under which the thermonuclear reaction can occur (the second stage). Also archaically referred to as a hydrogen bomb.
International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)
IAEA: Founded in 1957 and based in Vienna, Austria, the IAEA is an autonomous international organization in the United Nations system. The Agency’s mandate is the promotion of peaceful uses of nuclear energy, technical assistance in this area, and verification that nuclear materials and technology stay in peaceful use. Article III of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) requires non-nuclear weapon states party to the NPT to accept safeguards administered by the IAEA. The IAEA consists of three principal organs: the General Conference (of member states); the Board of Governors; and the Secretariat. For additional information, see the IAEA.
Agreed Framework
Agreed Framework: The 1994 agreement between the United States and North Korea (Democratic People's Republic of Korea, DPRK) to "freeze" the DPRK’s nuclear program. The agreement outlined a 10-year program during which the United States, South Korea, and Japan would construct two new light-water-moderated nuclear reactors in the DPRK in exchange for the shutting down of all of the DPRK’s existing nuclear facilities. In addition, the DPRK agreed to remain a party to the NPT and to accept IAEA full-scope safeguards. The multilateral Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization (KEDO) would oversee implementation of the agreement.

See glossary entries for Joint Declaration on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization; for additional information, see the Joint Declaration and KEDO.
Light-water reactor
Light-water reactor: A term used to describe reactors using ordinary water, where the hydrogen is hydrogen-1, as a coolant and moderator, including boiling water reactors (BWRs) and pressurized water reactors (PWRs), the most common types used in the United States.
Dismantlement
Dismantlement: Taking apart a weapon, facility, or other item so that it is no longer functional.
Weapons-grade material
Weapons-grade material: Refers to the nuclear materials that are most suitable for the manufacture of nuclear weapons, e.g., uranium (U) enriched to 90 percent U-235 or plutonium (Pu) that is primarily composed of Pu-239 and contains less than 7% Pu-240. Crude nuclear weapons (i.e., improvised nuclear devices), could be fabricated from lower-grade materials.
Plutonium (Pu)
Plutonium (Pu): A transuranic element with atomic number 94, produced when uranium is irradiated in a reactor. It is used primarily in nuclear weapons and, along with uranium, in mixed-oxide (MOX) fuel. Plutonium-239, a fissile isotope, is the most suitable isotope for use in nuclear weapons.
Enriched uranium
Enriched uranium: Uranium with an increased concentration of the isotope U-235, relative to natural uranium. Natural uranium contains 0.7 percent U-235, whereas nuclear weapons typically require uranium enriched to very high levels (see the definitions for “highly enriched uranium” and “weapons-grade”). Nuclear power plant fuel typically uses uranium enriched to 3 to 5 percent U-235, material that is not sufficiently enriched to be used for nuclear weapons.
Anthrax
The common name of the bacterium Bacillus anthracis, as well as the name of the disease it produces.  A predominantly animal disease, anthrax can also infect humans and cause death within days.  B. anthracis bacteria can form hardy spores, making them relatively easy to disseminate.  Germany, the United Kingdom, the United States, and the USSR/Russia have all investigated anthrax as a biological weapon, as did the Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo.  Anthrax-laced letters were also used to attack the U.S. Senate and numerous news agencies in September 2001.  There is no vaccine available to the general public, and treatment requires aggressive administration of antibiotics.
Ballistic missile
A delivery vehicle powered by a liquid or solid fueled rocket that primarily travels in a ballistic (free-fall) trajectory.  The flight of a ballistic missile includes three phases: 1) boost phase, where the rocket generates thrust to launch the missile into flight; 2) midcourse phase, where the missile coasts in an arc under the influence of gravity; and 3) terminal phase, in which the missile descends towards its target.  Ballistic missiles can be characterized by three key parameters - range, payload, and Circular Error Probable (CEP), or targeting precision.  Ballistic missiles are primarily intended for use against ground targets.
Scud
Scud is the designation for a series of short-range ballistic missiles developed by the Soviet Union in the 1950s and transferred to many other countries. Most theater ballistic missiles developed and deployed in countries of proliferation concern, for example Iran and North Korea, are based on the Scud design.
Submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM)
SLBM: A ballistic missile that is carried on and launched from a submarine.
Space Launch Vehicle (SLV)
A rocket used to carry a payload, such as a satellite, from Earth into outer space. SLVs are of proliferation concern because their development requires a sophisticated understanding of the same technologies used in the development of long-range ballistic missiles. Some states (e.g., Iran), may have developed space launch vehicle programs in order to augment their ballistic missile capabilities.
Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR)
The MTCR: An informal arrangement established in April 1987 by an association of supplier states concerned about the proliferation of missile equipment and technology relevant to missiles that are capable of carrying a payload over 500 kilograms over a 300-kilometer range. Though originally intended to restrict the proliferation of nuclear-capable missiles, the regime has been expanded to restrict the spread of unmanned aerial vehicles. For additional information, see the MTCR.
Mustard (HD)
Mustard is a blister agent, or vesicant. The term mustard gas typically refers to sulfur mustard (HD), despite HD being neither a mustard nor a gas. Sulfur mustard gained notoriety during World War I for causing more casualties than all of the other chemical agents combined. Victims develop painful blisters on their skin, as well as lung and eye irritation leading to potential pulmonary edema and blindness. However, mustard exposure is usually not fatal. A liquid at room temperature, sulfur mustard has been delivered using artillery shells and aerial bombs. HD is closely related to the nitrogen mustards (HN-1, HN-2, HN—3).
Phosgene (CG)
Phosgene (CG): A choking agent, phosgene gas causes damage to the respiratory system leading to fluid build-up in the lungs. Phosgene also causes coughing, throat and eye irritation, tearing, and blurred vision. A gas at room temperature, phosgene can be delivered as a pressurized liquid that quickly converts to gas. Germany and France used phosgene during World War I; the United Kingdom, the United States, and Russia also produced military phosgene. Phosgene caused over 80% of the deaths from chemical gas during World War I.
Sarin (GB)
Sarin (GB): A nerve agent, sarin causes uncontrollable nerve cell excitation and muscle contraction. Ultimately, sarin victims suffer death by suffocation. As with other nerve agents, sarin can cause death within minutes. Sarin vapor is about ten times less toxic than VX vapor, but 25 times more toxic than hydrogen cyanide. Discovered while attempting to produce more potent pesticides, sarin is the most toxic of the four G-series nerve agents developed by Germany during World War II. Germany never used sarin during the war. However, Iraq may have used sarin during the Iran-Iraq War, and Aum Shinrikyo is known to have used low-quality sarin during its attack on the Tokyo subway system that killed 12 people and injured hundreds.
Vomiting agent
A vomiting agent is a chemical weapon that attacks the nose and throat, leading to nausea and severe emesis (vomiting).  Vomiting agents can be used to force an enemy to remove protective equipment such as gas masks. Examples include adamsite and DA.
VX
VX: The most toxic of the V-series nerve agents, VX was developed after the discovery of VE in the United Kingdom. Like other nerve agents, VX causes uncontrollable nerve excitation and muscle excitation. Ultimately, VX victims suffer death by suffocation. VX is an oily, amber-colored, odorless liquid.

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. The White House, “Joint Statement of President Donald J. Trump of the United States of America and Chairman Kim Jong Un of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea at the Singapore Summit,” 12 June 2018, www.whitehouse.gov.
  4. Leo Byrne, “North Korean Missile Test did not Threaten U.S. or Allies: Pompeo,” NK News, 5 May 2019, www.nknews.org
  5. Ri Son Gwon, “Our Message to U.S. is Clear” Korean Central News Agency, 12 June 2020, kcna.kp
  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. Jeffrey Lewis, “After the Trump-Kim Summit, U.S. and North Korea Appear as Far Apart as Ever,” NPR, 14 June 2018, www.npr.org.
  11. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, “Remarks to Traveling Press,” Seoul, South Korea, 13 June 2018, www.state.gov.
  12. Zachary Cohen, “New satellite imagery shows activity at suspected North Korean nuclear facility,” CNN, 8 July 2020, www.cnn.com.
  13. Ankit Panda, “North Korea May Already Be Annually Accruing Enough Fissile Material for 12 Nuclear Weapons,” The Diplomat, 9 August 2017, www.thediplomat.com.
  14. “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.
  15. Republic of Korea, Ministry of National Defense, “2018 Defense White Paper,” 31 December 2018, p. 34, www.mnd.go.kr.
  16. Office of the Secretary of Defense, “Military and Security Developments Involving the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea 2017,” www.defense.gov.
  17. 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.
  18.  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.
  19. “No Dong 1,” Center for Strategic and International Studies Missile Defense Project, www.missilethreat.csis.org.
  20. “The CNS North Korea Missile Test Database,” Nuclear Threat Initiative, www.nti.org.
  21. “The CNS North Korea Missile Test Database,” Nuclear Threat Initiative, www.nti.org
  22. “North Korea displays ‘massive’ ICBM at military parade,” BBC, 10 October 2020, www.bbc.com.
  23. Ju-min Park and Jack Kim, “North Korea fires submarine-launched ballistic missile towards Japan,” Reuters, 23 August 2016, www.reuters.com.
  24. “The CNS North Korea Missile Database,” Nuclear Threat Initiative, www.nti.org.
  25. Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, “Non-Member States,” www.opcw.org.
  26. Joseph Bermudez Jr., “North Korea’s Chemical Warfare Capabilities,” 38 North, 11 October 2013, http://38north.org.
  27. Republic of Korea, Ministry of National Defense, “2018 Defense White Paper,” 31 December 2018, p. 34, www.mnd.go.kr.
  28. “Strategic Weapon System, Korea, North,” Jane’s Sentinel Security Assessment, 5 July 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, 7 February 2014, www.un.org.
  30. “Malaysian Police Say Kim Jong Nam Killed with VX Nerve Agent,” James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies, 24 February 2017, Nonproliferation.org.

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