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“The Arms Control Association and all of the staff I've worked with over the years … have this ability to speak truth to power in a wide variety of venues.”
– Marylia Kelley
Tri-Valley Communities Against a Radioactive Environment
June 2, 2022
Arms Control and Proliferation Profile: North Korea
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Last Reviewed: 
August 2023

 

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. In 2022, North Korea conducted more than 90 tests of short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs), medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBMs), land-attack cruise missiles, hypersonic glide vehicles (HGVs), submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), IRBMs and intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) according to SIPRI. 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

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 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 has conducted six nuclear tests as of September 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.
  • However, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) discovered in 1992 that North Korea had diverted plutonium from its civilian program for weapons purposes.

 

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.
  • 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.

 

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 deal eventually broke down and North Korea 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.

 

Nuclear tests

  • 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.

 

For more information on the history of nuclear testing, please see the Nuclear Test Tally factsheet here.

 

2018 Diplomatic Overture

For more information on North of U.S.-North Korean Nuclear and Missile Diplomacy, 1985-2022, please see our fact sheet here and follow Arms Control Today’s coverage on North Korea.

 

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

 

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, the Yongbyon Nuclear Fuel Rod Fabrication Plant, which is estimated to have 4,000 centrifuges. However, in 2021, it was estimated that the plant was expanding to include another 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 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. A February 2016 Congressional report confirmed that both Syria and Iran have received missile technology from North Korea. While Syria has also engaged in nuclear technology cooperation with North Korea, the report found no evidence that Iran has done so.
  • Pyongyang has also 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 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 declared in January 2016 that 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 would not use a nuclear weapon unless its sovereignty is “encroached upon by any aggressive hostile forces” with nuclear weapons. This sentiment was again repeated by Kim Jong Un during his 2018 New Year's Address.

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

 

In September of 2022, a new doctrine was released that had contradictions to previous doctrines. For example, it stresses that North Korean nuclear forces must always be “regularly ready for action” and could be used pre-emptively in response to a threat to North Korean leadership or command structure. It also suggests that nuclear weapons may be used to ‘seize the initiative’ in wartime scenarios. Emphasis was also given to creating a large tactile nuclear arsenal.

 

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