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former IAEA Director-General

Arms Control and Proliferation Profile: North Korea
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Updated: July 2017

North Korea currently has the fissile material for an estimated 10-16 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, and has been working towards developing an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of reaching the U.S. mainland. 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. 

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

Other Arms Control and Nonproliferation Activities

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

Group

Status

Australia Group

Not a member

Missile Technology Control Regime

Not a member and has frequently exported missiles and related materials

Nuclear Suppliers Group

Not a member

Wassenaar Arrangement

Not a member

International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Additional Protocol

None

Global Initiative to Combat Nuclear Terrorism

Not a participant

Hague Code of Conduct against Ballistic Missile Proliferation

Not a participant

Proliferation Security Initiative

Not a participant

UN Security Council Resolutions 1540 and 1673

North 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 has the fissile material for an estimated 10-16 nuclear weapons and may have as many as 20-100 warheads by 2020.
  • North Korea has an estimated 6-8 plutonium-based warheads, based on its known plutonium production. North Korea is also known to have a uranium-enrichment program using centrifuge technology, although its enrichment capacity is unknown. It is unclear if North Korea is enriching uranium to weapons grade. If so, it could have material for an additional 4-8 warheads.
  • 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 has conducted five nuclear tests as of September 2016. 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.
  • However, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) discovered in 1992 that North Korea had diverted plutonium from its civilian program for weapons purposes.

U.S.-North Korea Agreed Framework

  • In 1994, 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 deal eventually broke down and North Korea withdrew from the NPT.
  • For more information, see The U.S.-North Korean 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 recieved 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

Nuclear tests

  • On Oct. 9, 2006, North Korea conducted its first nuclear test with an estimated yield of about one kiloton.
  • North Korea then conducted its second nuclear test on June 25, 2009 with the underground detonation of a nuclear device estimated to have a yield of 2 to 6 kilotons.
  • On February 12, 2013, the Korean Central News Agency announced that North Korea successfully detonated a nuclear device at its underground test site. The explosive yield was estimated at approximately 15 kilotons. North Korea claimed the device was ‘miniaturized’, a term commonly used to refer to a warhead light enough to fit on the tip of a ballistic missile.
  • On January 6, 2016, Pyongyang announced its fourth nuclear test, declaring that it was a test of the hydrogen bomb design. The explosive yield was estimated at 15-20 kilotons.  Experts doubt that the test was a hydrogen bomb, but contend that the test could have used boosted fission, a process that uses lithium gas to increase the efficiency of the fission reaction for a larger explosion.
  • On September 9, 2016, North Korea conducted its fifth nuclear test, with an estimated explosive yield of 20-25 kilotons.

Delivery Systems

Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM) and Intermediate Range Ballistic Missiles (IRBM)

  • North Korea is actively expanding its ballistic missile arsenal and allegedly working toward developing intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). As of May 2017, North Korea’s operational and developing intercontinental and intermediate-range missiles include:
    • Musudan BM-25 (Hwasong-10): The Musudan BM-25 is an intermediate-range ballistic missile with an expected range of 2500-4000km. It has been flight tested six times, most recently on June 21, 2016.
    • Hwasong-12: On May 14, 2017, North Korea tested another new ballistic missile, the Hwasong-12, which appears to be an intermediate-range, single-stage missile with an estimated range of 4,500 kilometers.
    • KN-08 (Hwasong-13): The KN-08 is an intercontinental ballistic missile under development with an estimated range of 5,500-11,500km. Given that the system has not been tested, however, the range estimates are highly speculative. It was first unveiled in April 2012 and has not yet been tested, although North Korea likely tested the rocket engine for this system.
    • KN-14 (Hwasong-13, KN-08 Mod 2): The KN-14 is an ICBM under development with an estimated range of 8,000-10,000km. Given that the system has not been tested, however, the range estimates are highly speculative. It was first unveiled in October 2015 and is believed to be a variant of the KN-08.
    • Hwasong-14: The Hwasong-14 is an ICBM, first tested July 4, 2017. The test was conducted at a lofted trajectory. At a standard trajectory, the range of the missile is estimated to be between 6,500-7,000 kilometers. 
    • Taepodong-2:The inaugural flight test of North Korea’s longest-range missile, the Taepodong-2, ended in failure about 40 seconds after launch on July 5, 2006. In April 2009, the Taepodong-2 missile was tested unsuccessfully again. The Taepodong-2 is believed to be capable of reaching the United States if developed as an ICBM.

Space-Launched Vehicles (SLV)

  • Unha-3: North Korea's SLV is a three-stage liquid fueled system, likely based on the Taepodong-2.
  • In February 2012, North Korea agreed to cease long-range missile tests in exchange for food aid from the United States. North Korea stated that the agreement did not cover space launch vehicles and proceeded to launch the Unha in April 2009. The SLV exploded shortly after launch. The United States contended that the agreement did cover SLVs, causing the agreement, known as the Leap Day Deal, to fall apart.
  • On December 12, 2012, North Korea claimed that it successfully launched a satellite into space using its Unha rocket.

Short and Medium Range Missiles 

  • North Korea’s short-range and medium-range missiles include:
    • KN-02 (Toska): The KN-02 is an operational, short-range missile with an estimated range of 120-170km.
    • Hwasong-5: The Hwasong-5 is an operational short-range ballistic missile with an estimated range of 300km.
    • Hwasong-6: The Hwasong-6 is an operational short-range ballistic missile with an estimated range of 500km.
    • Hwasong-7: The Hwasong-7 is an operational short-range ballistic missile with an estimated range of 800-1000km.
    • KN-15 (Pukkuksong 2): On February 11, 2017, North Korea launched a new medium-range ballistic missile, the Pukguksong-2, a two-stage, solid-fueled system with an estimated range of 1200-2000km. 
    • No-Dong: The No-Dong is an operational medium-range ballistic missile with a range of 1200-1500km.

Submarines and Submarine-Launched Ballistic Missile (SLBM)

  • North Korea is developing a submarine-launched ballistic missile, the KN-11, also known as the Pukkuksong-1 or Polaris-1.
  • The KN-11 was first tested in December 2014, and images from the missile first emerged after a May 2015 test at the Sinpo site. Photos released by the KNCA portrayed the test as a submarine launch, but the missile was likely fired from a submerged barge.
  • The KN-11 was most recently tested on August 24, 2016. It is estimated to become operational by 2020
  • Since October 2014, activity at the Sinpo South Shipyard indicates that North Korea may be using an experimental SINPO-class submarine as a test bed for submarine-launched ballistic missiles.

Fissile Material

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 is capable of producing six kg of weapons-grade plutonium each year. 
  • Satellite imagery from April 2016 and January 2017 confirmed increased activity at the reprocessing site.

Highly Enriched Uranium

  • While Pyongyang has constructed a gas centrifuge facility, it is unknown if the facility is producing uranium enriched to weapons-grade.
  • In November 2010, North Korea unveiled a large uranium-enrichment plant to former officials and academics from the United States. The plant contained approximately 2,000 gas centrifuges that were claimed to be operating and producing low-enriched uranium (LEU) for a light-water reactor (LWR) that North Korea is constructing. This plant is estimated to be capable of producing two metric tons of LEU each year, enough to fuel the LWR reactor under construction, or to produce 40 kg of highly-enriched uranium (HEU), enough for one to two nuclear weapons.

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 Egypt, Iran, Libya, Pakistan, Syria and Yemen.
  • Such transfers are believed to be one of Pyongyang’s primary sources of hard currency.
  • Although clientele for North Korea's missile exports appear to have dwindled in recent years due to U.S. pressure and UN sanctions, Iran and Syria remain customers of North Korean missile assistance.
  • Pyongyang is widely believed to have provided missile cooperation to Burma.

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 adherance to UN Security Council sanctions and illict 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 declared in January 2016 it would not be the first to use nuclear weapons unless its sovereignty is under threat and stated North Korea will “faithfully fulfill its obligation for non-proliferation and strive for the global denuclearization.” Kim Jong Un reiterated this policy in May 2016 when he said that North Korea will not use a nuclear weapon unless its sovereignty is “encroached upon by any aggressive hostile forces” with nuclear weapons.

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

Given that North Korea typically does not describe its nuclear activities accurately, it is unclear to what extent Pyongyang would abide by this declared doctrine.

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 is likely intended to produce “military-size” batches of anthrax.

Chemical Weapons

  • North Korea is widely reported to possess a large arsenal of chemical weapons, including mustard, phosgene, and sarin agents.
  • According to U.S. military estimates, North Korea “can deploy missiles with chemical warheads.”
  • North Korea is believed to have 2,500 to 5,000 tons of chemical weapons according to the South Korean Ministry of National Defense.
  • In February 2017, North Korean agents used VX, widely believed to be the most toxic known nerve agent, to assassinate Kim Jong Nam, the half-brother of Kim Jong Un in Malaysia. 

Other Arms Control and Nonproliferation Activities

Joint Declaration on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula

  • In December 1991, 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.
  • In light of North Korea's flagrant violations, this agreement holds little weight in Seoul, which has called for an end to the prohibition on South Korean reprocessing from its bilateral nuclear agreement with the United States.
  • North Korea formally declared the Joint Declaration void in January 2013.

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 
  5. Issue Brief, February 2017: Recalibrating U.S. Policy Toward North Korea

Posted: April 22, 2013