Arms Control and Proliferation Profile: North Korea

 

North Korea is estimated to have assembled 30 nuclear warheads, as of January 2023, and to have the fissile material for an estimated 50-70 nuclear weapons, as well as advanced chemical and biological weapons programs. In the past several years Pyongyang has accelerated the pace of ballistic missile testing. North Korea has the capability to deliver nuclear weapons on a variety of land-based missile systems, including intercontinental ballistic missiles with ranges capable of targeting the continental United States, and is developing submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs). North Korea withdrew from the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 2003, but its withdrawal is disputed. Beginning in 2006, the UN Security Council has passed several resolutions requiring North Korea to halt its nuclear and missile activities and imposing sanctions on Pyongyang for its refusal to comply. Since the early 1990s, North Korea has periodically engaged in diplomacy and taken steps to limit or suspend certain nuclear and missile-related activities. 

 

Contents

Major Multilateral Arms Control Agreements and Treaties​

Export Control Regimes, Nonproliferation Initiatives, and Safeguards

Nuclear Weapons Programs, Policies, and Practices

  • The Nuclear Arsenal, an Overview
  • History and Diplomatic Initiatives
  • Delivery Systems
  • Fissile Material
  • Proliferation Record
  • Nuclear Doctrine

Biological Weapons

Chemical Weapons

Additional Resources on North Korea

 

 

Major Multilateral Arms Control Agreements and Treaties

 

Signed

Ratified

Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty

*North Korea maintains it withdrew from the NPT in 2003, but its withdrawal is questionable.

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1985*

Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty

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Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material (CPPNM)

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CPPNM 2005 Amendment

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Chemical Weapons Convention

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Biological Weapons Convention

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1987

International Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism

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Export Control Regimes, Nonproliferation Initiatives, and Safeguards

GroupStatus
Australia GroupNot a member
Missile Technology Control RegimeNot a member and has frequently exported missiles and related materials
Nuclear Suppliers GroupNot a member
Wassenaar ArrangementNot a member
International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Additional ProtocolNone
Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear TerrorismNot a participant
Hague Code of Conduct against Ballistic Missile ProliferationNot a participant
Proliferation Security InitiativeNot a participant
UN Security Council Resolutions 1540 and 1673North Korea has not filed the requested reports on its activities to fulfill the resolution

Nuclear Weapons Programs, Policies, and Practices

 

The Nuclear Arsenal, An Overview

  • North Korea currently is estimated to have 30 warheads, as of January 2023, and the fissile material for an estimated 50-70 nuclear weapons.
  • North Korea is estimated to possess 25-48 kilograms of plutonium and 400-1,000 kilograms of highly enriched uranium, but there is a high degree of uncertainty surrounding these estimates.
  • North Korea was party to the NPT, but withdrew in 2003. Not all states, however, recognize the legality of North Korea’s withdrawal from the treaty.
  • North Korea conducted six nuclear tests between 2006 and 2017. After the first test in 2006, the UN Security Council adopted resolution 1718, enacting a variety of multilateral sanctions and demanding that Pyongyang return to the NPT and halt its nuclear weapons activities.

 

History and Diplomatic Initiatives

 

The Origin of the Program

  • North Korea, with the assistance of the Soviet Union, began constructing the Yongbyon Nuclear Research Center in the early 1960s and by the early 1970s, had access to plutonium reprocessing technology from the Soviet Union.
  • In December 1985, North Korea signed the NPT as a non-nuclear weapon state.
  • After submitting its initial declaration to the International Atomic Energy Agency in 1992, the agency raised concerns about discrepancies in the country's plutonium stockpiles, which suggested that North Korea had diverted plutonium from its civilian program. After North Korea refused to cooperate with the IAEA's requests to clarify the discrepancies, the agency's Board of Governors determined in 1993 that North Korea was in non-compliance with its NPT-required safeguards obligations. 

 

Joint Declaration on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula

  • In January 1992, the two Koreas signed a Joint Declaration on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. Under the declaration, both countries agreed not to “test, manufacture, produce, receive, possess, store, deploy or use nuclear weapons” or to “possess nuclear reprocessing and uranium enrichment facilities.” The parties also agreed to mutual inspections for verification, but they were never able to reach an agreement on implementation.
  • North Korea formally declared the Joint Declaration void in January 2013.

 

U.S.-North Korea Agreed Framework

  • In 1994, former President Jimmy Carter and North Korean leader Kim Il Sung negotiated the U.S.-North Korea Agreed Framework, in which North Korea committed to freeze its plutonium-based weapons program at Yongbyon in exchange for two light-water reactors and other forms of energy assistance. 
  • The Agreed Framework broke down during the Bush administration, in part due to North Korea's acknowledgment of an illicit uranium enrichment program and the U.S. decision to halt support for the energy assistance provisions of the agreement. In response, North Korea announced it would restart nuclear activities halted by the agreement and withdrew from the NPT.
  • For more information, see The U.S.-North Korea Agreed Framework at a Glance.

 

Six-Party Talks

  • In August 2003, in response to North Korea’s withdrawal from the NPT, Russia, China, Japan, the United States, and the two Koreas launched a multilateral diplomatic process, known as the six-party talks.
  • In September 2005, the six-party talks realized its first major success with the adoption of a joint statement in which North Korea pledged to abandon its nuclear weapons activities and return to the NPT in return for security assurances and energy assistance.
  • In building on the 2005 statement, North Korea took steps such as disabling its plutonium reactor at Yongbyon in 2007 and allowing IAEA inspectors into the country. In return, North Korea received fuel oil.
  • North Korea declared it would no longer be bound by agreements made under the six party talks in April 2009 after a period of increased tensions.
  • For more information, see: The Six Party Talks at a Glance.

 

 

2018 Diplomatic Overture

  • In April 2018, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in met and issued a joint statement that included a commitment to establish a permanent peace regime on the peninsula and to eliminate the danger of war. Ahead of the meeting, Kim said he would suspend long-range missile tests and nuclear tests. 

  • U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un met in Singapore in June 2018 and signed a joint declaration. The document, known as the Singapore Declaration, committed to "establish new US-DPRK relations" and "work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula."

  • Trump and Kim met again in February 2019 in Hanoi but the talks ended without an agreement. North Korean Minister of Foreign Affairs Ri Yong Ho said North Korea requested a partial removal of sanctions in exchange for a permanent halt of nuclear and ballistic missile testing and the full and verifiable dismantlement of the facilities at the Yongbyon nuclear complex. 

  • Trump and Kim met at the DMZ in June and agreed to resume negotiations, but talks stalled. 

 

Delivery Systems

For information on North Korean Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM) and Intermediate Range Ballistic Missiles (IRBM), please see our factsheet on Worldwide Ballistic Missile Inventories

 

Fissile Material and Nuclear Tests

 

Nuclear tests

  • North Korea conducted six nuclear tests between 2006-2017.
  • North Korea claimed its fifth nuclear test, conducted in September 2016, was a miniaturized warhead capable of being mounted on a ballistic missile.
  • On September 3, 2017, North Korea conducted its sixth nuclear test explosion, of what experts assess could be a hydrogen bomb with an estimated explosive yield of 140-250 kilotons.

 

Plutonium

  • Experts assess that North Korea’s 2006 and 2009 nuclear tests likely used plutonium, which North Korea was known to have produced at weapons-grade levels.
  • North Korea announced its intention to restart its Yongbyon 5MWe Reactor for plutonium production in April 2013, after disabling it as a part of the six-party talks in 2007. North Korea declared the site to be “fully operational” by late August 2015.
  • The reactor can produce six kg of weapons-grade plutonium each year when fully operation.
  • Satellite imagery from April 2016, January 2017, and April 2018 confirmed increased activity at the reprocessing site.
  • As of April 2021, North Korea is estimated to possess 25-48 kg of plutonium.

Highly Enriched Uranium

  • While Pyongyang has constructed a gas centrifuge facility, it is unknown if the facility is producing uranium enriched to weapons-grade.
  • North Korea has declared only one uranium enrichment facility at Yongbyon, which is estimated to have 4,000 centrifuges. However, satellite imagery from 2021 suggests that North Korea expanded the plant to include an estimated additional 1,000 centrifuges.
  • There is also wide belief within the intelligence community that a second covert plant exists in Kangson. In 2022, the United Nations listed Kangson as a “suspected clandestine uranium enrichment facility.”
  • While the clandestine nature of the North Korean enrichment facilities makes it difficult to estimate, as of 2022, North Korea is estimated to possess 400-1,000 kg of uranium according to the International Panel on Fissile Materials.

 

Proliferation Record

 

Missiles:

  • North Korea has been a key supplier of missiles and missile technology to countries in the Middle East and South Asia including Burma, Egypt, Iran, Libya, Pakistan, Syria, and Yemen.
  • North Korea's missile exports appear to have dwindled in recent years due to U.S. pressure and UN sanctions and states developing indigenous missile production capabilities. 

Nuclear

  • North Korea has a history of circumventing sanctions to import and export dual-use materials relevant to nuclear and ballistic missile activities and to sell conventional arms and military equipment. A UN panel of exports reports annually on adherence to UN Security Council sanctions and illicit trafficking. A few examples include:
    • North Korea helped Syria to build an undeclared nuclear reactor in al-Kibar based on its own Yongbyon reactor. In 2007, the reactor, which was under construction, was destroyed by an Israeli airstrike.
    • In November 2012, North Korea allegedly attempted to sell graphite rods to Syria.

 

Nuclear Doctrine

 

North Korea passed a law in September 2022 that updated North Korea's nuclear doctrine. Previously, North Korea declared in January 2016 that it would not use nuclear weapons first in a conflict unless its sovereignty was under direct threat and committed to "strive for the global denuclearization." In the September 2022 law, North Korea enumerated the circumstances under which North Korea would use nuclear weapons first in a conflict, which appear to apply to a broad range of scenarios, including "taking the initiative in war" and preempting a "fatal military attack against important strategic objects." The law affirmed that the country's leader, Kim Jong Un has sole authority to launch nuclear weapons and noted for the first time that a nuclear strike will be conducted automatically if the country's leadership is targeted. The law also codified two missions for North Korea's nuclear arsenal: to deter an attack and to repel an attack should deterrence fail. Kim had previously laid out these priorities in an April 2022 speech.  

 

North Korea’s constitution was amended in 2013 to describe itself as a “nuclear state and an unchallengeable military power.” 

 

Biological Weapons

  • Pyongyang is believed to maintain a biological weapons capability.
  • The United States intelligence community continues to judge that North Korea has a biotechnology infrastructure to support such a capability, and has a munitions production capacity that could be used to weaponize biological agents.
  • North Korea maintains the modern Pyongyang Bio-technical Institute, purportedly a pesticide factory, equipped with dual-use equipment that can be used to maintain a biological weapons capability and, as of 2017, is likely intended to produce “military-size” batches of anthrax.

 

Chemical Weapons

 

Additional Resources on North Korea

  1. Factsheet: Chronology of U.S.-North Korean Nuclear and Missile Diplomacy
  2. Factsheet: UN Security Council Resolutions on North Korea
  3. Factsheet: The Six-Party Talks at a Glance
  4. Factsheet: The U.S.-North Korean Agreed Framework at a Glance