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Senior Fellow, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
April 15, 2019
North Korea Increasing Weapons Capabilities

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Paul Kerr

It is not certain that North Korea has nuclear weapons. But Pyongyang’s continued operation of its nuclear facilities at Yongbyon, as well as tests of a new solid-fuel missile engine, have enabled it to make progress toward being able to produce and deliver such weapons.

Siegfried Hecker, a former director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, provided new details about North Korea’s nuclear program during a Nov. 8 presentation to a Washington, D.C., audience. Hecker visited North Korea in August of this year as well as in January 2004. According to Hecker, North Korea has been able to produce enough plutonium for six to eight nuclear weapons since resuming operations at Yongbyon in early 2003.

The U.S. intelligence community has assessed that Pyongyang acquired enough plutonium for one or two nuclear weapons before freezing operations of its nuclear facilities under the 1994 Agreed Framework.

Under that bilateral agreement with the United States, North Korea agreed to allow the International Atomic Energy Agency to monitor the freeze, which included its five-megawatt graphite-moderated nuclear reactor and related facilities, as well as approximately 8,000 spent fuel rods. But after the most recent North Korean nuclear crisis started in October 2002, Pyongyang ejected the inspectors, announced its withdrawal from the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, restarted the reactor, and claimed to have reprocessed the spent fuel to obtain plutonium for nuclear weapons.

In the ongoing six-party talks, which are designed to persuade North Korea to abandon its current nuclear programs, the United States has refused to negotiate an interim agreement with North Korea that would freeze Yongbyon’s facilities.

It is unclear whether Pyongyang’s reprocessing claim is true. Hecker’s North Korean interlocutors claimed during his first visit, which included a trip to the reprocessing facility at Yongbyon, that reprocessing was completed in June 2003. Hecker was not able to verify this claim but noted in his presentation that it would be technically feasible.

South Korea’s defense minister, Yoon Kwang-ung, offered a slightly different view in February, saying that North Korea had reprocessed “only part of the spent fuel rods.” (See ACT, March 2005.)

During Hecker’s August visit, North Korean officials provided him with an account, consistent with previous North Korean statements, of their more recent activities at Yongbyon. They said that North Korea operated the reactor from February 2003 until the end of March 2005. (See ACT, June 2005.) After refueling the reactor, Pyongyang resumed operations this past June, they said.

Hecker also said he was told that North Korea began reprocessing the batch of recently produced spent fuel rods in June and that the task was nearly complete at the end of August. (See ACT, November 2005.)

Moreover, North Korean officials updated Hecker about their progress in building two larger nuclear reactors, whose construction also had been frozen under the Agreed Framework.

Rep. Jim Leach (R-Iowa) said in September that North Korean officials had told him that they were proceeding with construction on the 50-megawatt reactor. But Hecker’s interlocutors provided him with more details, such as North Korea’s revelation that it has completed redesign for the reactor.

Additionally, one official implied that Pyongyang is attempting to complete construction within “a couple of years” but did not give a completion date. Hecker said he was told that North Korea is working on the reactor core elsewhere, adding that this off-site work explains why recent satellite images have shown only limited construction activity at the reactor site. North Korea has not decided whether to proceed with construction on the 200-megawatt reactor, he said.

New Solid-Fueled Missile

Pyongyang also appears to have made at least a modest advance in its ballistic missile programs, testing its first solid-fueled ballistic missile May 1.

An October report from Australia’s Ministry of Defense describes the missile as a “variant of the Russian SS-21, known as the KN-02.” A road-mobile, solid-fueled ballistic missile, the two versions of the SS-21 have estimated ranges of 70 kilometers and 120 kilometers, according to a 2003 National Air and Space Intelligence Center report.

A senior South Korean Ministry of Defense official told legislators several days after the test that the new North Korean missile’s range is estimated to be 100-120 kilometers, South Korea’s semi-official Yonhap News Agency reported.

Solid-fuel missiles are considered superior to liquid-fueled missiles because they are more mobile, can be deployed more rapidly, and can be launched on shorter notice.

In an Oct. 26 interview with Arms Control Today, a Department of State official would not confirm that the test took place but did say that such a test could be a “stepping stone” to produce solid-fuel engines for longer-range ballistic missiles.

North Korea has deployed longer-range missiles, such as the 1,300-kilometer-range Nodong missile, and flight-tested a 2,000-kilometer-range missile called the Taepo Dong-1. Both missiles, however, are liquid fueled.

The official said that the KN-02 program is unrelated to North Korea’s development of a road-mobile, intermediate-range ballistic missile said to be based on the liquid-fueled Soviet SS-N-6. That missile has a range estimated to be 2,500-4,000 kilometers. (See ACT, September 2004.)

The May test did not violate Pyongyang’s 1999 moratorium on flight-testing ballistic missiles because that pledge applies only to longer-range missiles. North Korea has not flight-tested any such missiles since declaring the moratorium, although its foreign ministry stated in March that Pyongyang is no longer bound by the pledge. (See ACT, April 2005.)