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Arms Control and Proliferation Profile: North Korea
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Updated: November 2016

This profile details which major arms control agreements, regimes, initiatives, and practices that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea) subscribes to and those that it does not. It also describes the major weapons programs, policies, and holdings of North Korea, as well as its proliferation record. This profile is one of a series focused on the arms control record and status of key states, all of which are available by clicking here

Major Multilateral Arms Control Agreements and Treaties




Biological Weapons Convention

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Chemical Weapons Convention

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Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty

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Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT)
-Announced its withdrawal Jan. 10, 2003.

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Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons

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Outer Space Treaty

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Ottawa Mine Ban Convention

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Convention on the Physical Protection of Nuclear Material (CPPNM)*

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CPPNM 2005 Amendment*

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International Convention for the Suppression of Acts of Nuclear Terrorism

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Export Control Regimes, Nonproliferation Initiatives, and Safeguards

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 Resolution 1540: North Korea has not filed the requested reports on its activities to fulfill the resolution.

Major Weapons Programs, Policies, and Practices

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.1 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.2

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.”3 North Korea is believed to have 2,500 to 5,000 tons of chemical weapons according to the South Korean Ministry of National Defense.4


    • Ballistic Missiles: North Korea is actively expanding its ballistic missile arsenal and allegedly working toward developing intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). It initially relied upon assistance from the Soviet Union and China to develop its arsenal, but North Korea is now a chief exporter of ballistic missile systems and technology. The North Korean military currently deploys short-range Scud and medium-range missiles. North Korea's medium-range ballistic missiles include the Musudan and Nodong. Since 1998, North Korea has conducted four tests of missiles beyond medium range. The sole test of its two-stage intermediate-range Taepo Dong-1, intended to place a satellite in orbit, failed in August 1998. The Taepo Dong-1 is believed to have merely served as a missile technology test-bed. The inaugural flight test of North Korea’s longest-range missile, the Taepo Dong-2, ended in failure about 40 seconds after launch on July 5, 2006. In April 2009, the Taepo Dong-2 missile was tested again. The first stage of the missile traveled approximately 270km before falling into the Sea of Japan. The remaining stages and the payload landed in the Pacific Ocean, though the intent was for the satellite payload to be launched into space. The international community has largely deemed this test to be a failure. The Taepo Dong-2 is believed to be capable of reaching the United States "if developed as an ICBM."5 In February 2012, North Korea agreed to cease long-range missile tests in exchange for food aid from the United States. Despite this agreement, North Korea proceeded to launch the liquid-fueled three stage Unha-3 rocket (with the same delivery system as the Taepo Dong-2) in April, ostensibly to place a weather satellite in orbit. The result was another failure with the missile exploding after a few minutes of flight time. Two days after the failed test, a parade in Pyongyang featured six road-mobile ICBMs, although based on analyses of the missiles' features, many experts believe that these missiles are mockups, not operational missiles. A May 2012 report by a panel of experts to the UN Security Council confirmed that sanctions from UN Security Council resolutions were hindering development of North Korea's missile programs.6 On December 12, 2012, North Korea attempted another satellite launch using an Unha-3 rocket. Shortly after the launch, the Korean Central News Agency claimed that the satellite successfully entered orbit.
    • Cruise Missiles: North Korea is believed to possess and continues to develop anti-ship cruise missiles derived from the Chinese CSSC-3 Silkworm/Seersucker designs, and it has the ability to produce variants of these missiles domestically. North Korea also possesses the Russian KH-35 anti-ship cruise missile, and may be working to reverse engineer it for an indigenous design. In June 2014, North Korea released a military propaganda video featuring a brief clip of the missile, called the KN-09 by North Korea. In February 2015, Pyongyang released new photos of a recent test launch of the variant, reporting that it was indigenously produced.7 
    • Sea-based Missiles: 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. In May 2015, North Korea conducted an underwater ejection test of a ballistic missile, likely an experimental mockup, 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. Analyses of the developments confirm that North Korea is working to develop an SLBM capability. In November 2015, North Korea again tested the KN-11 SLBM. The test was deemed a failure by experts because the missile failed to launch from the water. 

Nuclear Weapons:

North Korea has estimated 10 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.8  In total, North Korea may have the material for an estimated 14-18 weapons. By 2020, experts estimate that North Korea could have anywhere between 20-100 warheads based on the rate of its stockpile growth and technological improvements.  

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) discovered in 1992 that North Korea had diverted plutonium from its civilian program for weapons purposes. The resulting crisis eventually yielded the 1994 U.S.-North Korean Agreed Framework, in which North Korea committed to freezing its plutonium-based weapons program at Yongbyon in exchange for two light-water reactors and other forms of energy assistance.

The Agreed Framework collapsed after the United States accused North Korea of cheating on the arrangement. U.S. intelligence increasingly had suspected North Korea of pursuing a uranium-enrichment program as an alternative path to nuclear weapons, thereby violating the agreement’s spirit, as well as that of an earlier Korean peninsula denuclearization agreement (see “Other Arms Control and Nonproliferation Activities” below). U.S. officials say that North Korean negotiators admitted to having such a covert program when challenged in October 2002 on the issue. North Korean officials, however, have denied that alleged admission and continue to deny ever pursuing a uranium-enrichment program.

The Korean Economic Development Organization (KEDO), the multilateral body created to provide energy assistance to North Korea under the Agreed Framework, halted its energy aid to North Korea in November 2002. A year and one month later, KEDO suspended construction of the two light-water reactors.

North Korea ordered IAEA inspectors to leave the country Dec. 27, 2002, and announced its withdrawal from the NPT Jan. 10, 2003. In response, the IAEA referred the case to the UN Security Council. In August 2003, Russia, China, Japan, the United States, and the two Koreas also launched a multilateral diplomatic process, known as the six-party talks.

The talks initially failed to resolve the disputes, and on Feb. 10, 2005, North Korea announced that it had assembled nuclear warheads. 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 and nuclear weapons programs and return to the NPT. The talks faltered shortly after. On Oct. 9, 2006, North Korea conducted its first nuclear test. The UN Security Council responded by adopting resolution 1718, enacting a variety of multilateral sanctions and demanding that Pyongyang return to the NPT.

On Feb. 13, 2007, the six-party participants agreed to an action plan detailing initial steps to implement the September 2005 Joint Statement. That action plan included shutting down North Korea’s Yongbyon reactor in return for energy aid. Using the Yongbyon facilities, North Korea is thought to have produced sufficient plutonium to assemble 6-11 nuclear devices. Some of this plutonium, however, has been consumed in North Korea's nuclear tests, making its estimated putonium-based arsenal currently about 6-8 warheads.

The six parties concluded a follow-up agreement to the Feb. 13 action plan on Oct. 3, 2007. In that later agreement, North Korea agreed to disable its plutonium-production program at Yongbyon and provide a full accounting of all nuclear activities. In exchange for these actions, North Korea received the remaining energy aid pledged in the Feb. 13 agreement. The United States also committed to remove North Korea from its list of state sponsors of terrorism and to stop applying the 1917 Trading with the Enemy Act against Pyongyang.

North Korea’s failed April 2009 satellite launch was met with a United Nations Security Council condemnation and a demand that North Korea not conduct any further launches using ballistic missile technology. The North Korea responded strongly to this condemnation, withdrawing from the six party talks and declaring an intention to restart plutonium production.

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. The UN Security Council responded with Resolution 1874, which intensified sanctions on Pyongyang. This resolution also called for UN Member States to inspect and seize North Korean cargo suspected of being in violation of the sanctions.

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.

After the failed April 2012 missile test, which the UN Security Council condemned as a violation of resolutions 1718 and 1874, the North Korean government amended its constitution to formally recognize itself as a "nuclear armed state." However, in a meeting with the foreign minister of Cambodia in July 2012, the North Korean foreign minister stated that the regime was willing to resume six party talks.

On December 12, 2012, North Korea claimed that it successfully launched a satellite into space using an Unha-3 rocket that appeared similar to the rocket used in the April 2012 failed launch.

The UN Security Council passed Resolution 2087 on January 22, 2013 in response to North Korea's satellite launch, saying that Pyongyang's actions violated resolutions 1718 and 1874 because the technology required for a satellite launch has applications to ballistic missile development. Resolution 2087 strengthened existing sanctions against North Korea.

Shortly after the passage of UN Security Council Resolution 2087, the North Korean Central News Agency indicated that a third nuclear test may be imminent, and that Pyongyang would test long-range rocket systems for military purposes.

On February 12, 2013, the Korean Central News Agency announced that it successfully detonated a nuclear device at its underground test site. The Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO) detected seismic activity, likely from the explosion at the site of North Korea's first two nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009. The CTBTO's Executive Secretary Tibor Toth said that the activity had "explosive-like characteristics." On April 23, 2013, the CTBTO confirmed that its international monitoring system detected radioactive gases on April 9. The CTBTO was not able to confirm based on the particles detected whether or not the tested device used plutonium or highly enriched uranium.

Experts assess that the 2006 and 2009 tests likely used plutonium, which North Korea was known to have produced at weapons-grade levels. Pyongyang's uranium enrichment capabilities are less clear. While Pyongyang has constructed a gas centrifuge facility, it is unknown if the facility is producing uranium enriched to weapons-grade.

The UN Security Council unanimously passed Resolution 2094 on March 7, 2013 in response to the February 12 test. The resolution strengthens existing sanctions against North Korea by adding to the list of banned items for import and export, increasing the measure that states can take to interdict shipments suspected of containing these materials when passing through their territories and restricting bulk transfers of cash and other financial activities.

On March 26, 2014 North Korea test-fired two medium-range Rodang (also known as Nodong) missiles into the Sea of Japan, violating UN sanctions. This is the first time in five years that North Korea has tested medium-range projectiles. The next day the UN Security Council unanimously condemned North Korea for launching the midrange missiles, saying the launch violates council resolutions; China joins council in criticizing the launch. On March 30, 2014 North Korea threatened to carry out a 'new form' of nuclear test, one year after its third nuclear test which raised military tensions on the Korean Peninsula and had prompted the UN to tighten sanctions. Pyongyang did not specify what it meant by a 'new form,' but some speculated that it plans to make nuclear devices small enough to fit on ballistic missiles.

Since 2013, North Korea has been making improvements to the Sohae Satellite Launching Station, the site of the Unha rocket launches in 2012, which is ready for a fourth rocket launch. The Sohae site now features an upgraded launch pad, capable launching rockets larger than the Unha-3. Satellite imagery from August 2014 indicates that North Korea used the site to test the rocket motor for the KN-08 road-mobile ICBM, currently under development. The KN-08 was first displayed as a mockup in a military parade in April 2012.

North Korea offered to suspend nuclear testing in January 2015 in exchange for the United States and South Korea calling off annual joint-military exercises slated for spring 2015. The United States rejected the offer.9 

In September 2015, The U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University reported new activity at the Punggye-ri nuclear test site. Satellite imagery indicates ongoing work on existing tunnels, which could be used as a bomb test site, completed construction of a new support building, and increased activity at the site’s guardhouse checkpoint. It is unclear if the activity is related to regular maintenance or nuclear test preparations.  

Building on a previous announcement from April 2013 declaring North Korea’s intentions to restart the reactor, Pyongyang reported in September 2015 that all the nuclear facilities at Yongbyon, including the uranium enrichment plant and 5 MW graphite-moderated reactor were operating normally.

In December 2015, North Korea claimed to possess a hydrogen bomb capability. On January 6, 2016 Pyongyang announced its fourth nuclear test, declaring that it was a test of the hydrogen bomb design. As of January 6, the CTBTO confirmed that “unusual seismic activity” had been detected near the Punggye-ri test site. Experts doubt that the test was a hydrogen bomb, but it remains unclear. 

Proliferation Record

North Korea has been a key supplier of missiles and missile technology to countries in the developing world, particularly in politically unstable regions such as the Middle East and South Asia.10 Such transfers are believed to be one of Pyongyang’s primary sources of hard currency. In the past, its missile-related exports have gone to countries such as Egypt, Iran, Libya, Pakistan, Syria, and Yemen. 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, and in recent years, Pyongyang is widely believed to have provided missile cooperation to Burma. In an Executive Order issued in July 2012, President Obama sanctioned a Burmese entity for collaborating with North Korea on the development of a medium range ballistic missile program for Burma.

North Korea also has been engaged in nuclear proliferation. In April 2008, the U.S. intelligence community revealed that a Syrian facility destroyed in 2007 by an Israeli airstrike was assessed to have been an undeclared nuclear reactor under construction with North Korean assistance.11 The reactor design is believed to have been based on North Korea’s 5 megawatt reactor at Yongbyon. A May 24, 2011 IAEA report said that the facility “was very likely a nuclear reactor.” Pyongyang is also believed to have shipped uranium hexafluoride to Libya in 2000 for that country’s nuclear weapons program.12 

The 2012 Panel of Experts report to the UN Security Council indicated that between May 2011 and 2012 there had been no reported violations of sanctions concerning dual use technology or systems applicable to nuclear weapons or ballistic missiles. While sanctions have seen some success in limiting North Korea's ability to acquire and sell weapons, there were reported violations by North Korea involving arms and other materials.13

In November 2012, however, reports surfaced in the media that alleged that North Korea attempted to sell graphite rods to Syria. The material was reported to have been seized by South Koreans during an inspection of the ship carrying the materials in May. Japanese news sources also reported in November 2012 that in August they intercepted proliferation sensitive items bound for Burma from North Korea. In July 2013, Panama seized a ship carrying Soviet-made Cuban weapons hid amidst a shipment of sugar to North Korea. The Cuban Foreign Ministry maintained that the weapons were being transferred for repair, but the action still violated UN Security Council Resolution 1874 (2009) because no advance notification was given to the UN Security Council 1718 Committee, charged with overseeing North Korean sanctions compliance. The incident reinforced concern that North Korea continues to use illicit channels to advance its ballistic missile and nuclear weapons capabilities.14 

The 2013 Panel of Experts report states that sanctions have “considerably delayed” Pyongyang’s timetable and chocked of considerable financial funding and access to arms, but has not halted the development of the ballistic missile and nuclear weapons programs. The Panel highlighted shortcomings in implementation of UNSC resolutions, which create proliferation loopholes for North Korea, and recommended that sanctions be imposed on fifteen additional people and entities.15 

The 2014 report by the Panel of Experts again stressed the need for improved implementation. The Panel did not recommend new nonproliferation measures, but called on states to make better use of the existing tools to stem North Korean proliferation.16  

In the most recent report, covering the period dating to Feb. 5, 2015, the Panel wrote that it saw no evidence of North Korea intends to cease prohibited activities, and reported “widespread evidence of resilience and adaptation” in North Korea’s efforts to circumvent sanctions. In the report the Panel recommended that sanctions be imposed on several dozen additional individuals and entities, and also made recommendations to improve enforcement of the sanctions regime.17 

Other Arms Control and Nonproliferation Activities

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 that the Joint Declaration void in January 2013.

-Updated by Elizabeth Philipp


1. Office of the Director of National Intelligence, Unclassified Report to Congress on the Acquisition of Technology Relating to Weapons of Mass Destruction and Advanced Conventional Munitions, 1 January to 31 December 2010, http://www.dni.gov/reports/20110208_report_wmd.pdf.

2. Melissa Hanham, "Kim Jong Un Tours Pesticide Facility Capable of Producing Biological Weapons: A 38 North Special Report," 38 North Website, http://38north.org/2015/07/mhanham070915/.  

3. Statement of General Thomas A. Schwartz, Commander in Chief United Nations Command/Combined Forces Command and Commander, United States Forces Korea, before the 107th Congress, Senate Armed Forces Committee, March 5, 2002.

4. Minister of National Defense, Republic of Korea, 2010 Defense White Paper, December 2010, http://www.nti.org/media/pdfs/2010WhitePaperAll_eng.pdf?_=1340662780c.

5. National Air and Space Intelligence Center, Ballistic and Cruise Missile Threat, 2009, http://www.fas.org/irp/threat/missile/naic/NASIC2009.pdf.

6. United Nations Security Council, Report of the Panel of Experts established pursuant to resolution 1874 (2009), May 2012.

7. Joseph S. Bermudez, Jr. "The Korean People's Navy Tests New Anti-ship Cruise Missile," 38 North Website, http://38north.org/2015/02/jbermudez020815/.

8. Joel S. Wit and Sun Young Ahn, North Korea's Nuclear Futures: Technology and Strategy, US-Korea Institue at SAIS, http://38north.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/02/NKNF-NK-Nuclear-Futures-Wit-0215.pdf

9. Kelsey Davenport, "U.S. Rejects N. Korean Offer on Testing," Arms Control Todayhttps://www.armscontrol.org/ACT/2015_03/News/US-Rejects-North-Korean-Offer-on-Testing

10. Office of the Director of National Intelligence, Unclassified Report to Congress on the Acquisition of Technology Relating to Weapons of Mass Destruction and Advanced Conventional Munitions, 1 January to 31 December 2010, http://www.dni.gov/reports/20110208_report_wmd.pdf.

11. Office of the Director of National Intelligence, Background Briefing with Senior U.S. Officials on Syria's Covert Nuclear Reactor and North Korea's Involvement, April 24, 2008, http://www.dni.gov/interviews/20080424_interview.pdf.

12. Olli Heinonen, "North Korea's Nuclear Enrichment: Capabilities and Consequences," 38 North Website, http://belfercenter.ksg.harvard.edu/publication/21153/north_koreas_nuclear_enrichment.html.

13. United Nations Security Council, Report of the Panel of Experts established pursuant to resolution 1874 (2009), May 2012.

14. Kelsey Davenport, "N. Korea Continues to Evade Sanctions," Arms Control Today, http://www.armscontrol.org/act/2013_09/North-Korea-Continues-to-Evade-Sanctions.  

15. United Nations Security Council, Report of the Panel of Experts established pursuant to resolution 1874 (2009), May 2013.

16. United Nations Security Council, Report of the Panel of Experts established pursuant to resolution 1874 (2009), February 2014. 

17. United Nations Security Council, Report of the Panel of Experts established pursuant to resolution 1874 (2009), January 2015.  


Posted: April 22, 2013