The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) possesses an increasingly capable ballistic missile inventory and continues to make progress on its nuclear weapons program. Despite it’s struggling economy, North Korea invests significant financial resources into its weapons of mass destruction program in an effort to deter the United States and its allies. The DPRK refuses to cooperate with the international community in efforts to monitor and roll back its nuclear program. Due to a lack of transparency regarding its nuclear and ballistic missile program and unpredictable leadership, North Korea poses a considerable threat to the United States and allies around the world.

Nuclear Program

North Korea has the ability to fuel nuclear devices with weapons grade plutonium and uranium. Fissile material for Pyongyang’s nuclear program comes primarily from Yongbyon, where the nation has an experimental nuclear reactor that produces reactor-grade plutonium and centrifuges that create enriched uranium. To produce weapons-grade plutonium-239, North Korea reprocesses spent plutonium from the reactor at Yongbyon. In September 2015, Yongbyon’s reactor resumed normal operation after years of inactivity, bolstering the DPRK’s supply of reactor-grade plutonium. Despite a reinvigorated supply of plutonium, it is likely that the future of Pyongyang’s nuclear program will center on highly enriched uranium because of North Korea’s large uranium ore reserves and its ability to produce highly enriched uranium-235. To produce highly enriched uranium, Pyongyang uses centrifuges located at Yongbyon, however, some experts suspect that the DPRK has other centrifuges at clandestine nuclear facilities unknown to outsiders.

The Kim regime conducted underground nuclear tests in 2006, 2009, 2013, and 2016. The 2006 nuclear test involved a device fueled by plutonium and the yield was measured to be less than one kiloton, indicating that the test was not a success. In 2009, the regime conducted another underground test with reprocessed plutonium and a yield of around 4 kilotons. The 2013 underground nuclear test likely used highly enriched uranium rather than plutonium and resulted in a higher yield than the previous tests. The DPRK claimed that the device was a miniaturized nuclear warhead small enough to fit onto a missile. In January 2016, North Korea carried out a fourth underground nuclear test, which the state-controlled media claimed to be a hydrogen bomb. Although the yield for the 2016 test was higher—around 10 to 15 kilotons—many experts argue that it was not in fact a thermonuclear detonation. Later that year in September, the country tested its largest nuclear device to date. While North Korean state media claimed the device tested could fit atop a ballistic missile, many experts believe that the DPRK is years away from having such capability.

In order to weaponize its nuclear capability, the DPRK would need to miniaturize a device small enough to fit on a delivery system, such as a ballistic missile or gravity bomb. Currently, North Korea’s only nuclear delivery systems are ground-based ballistic missiles. However, the nation is currently developing submarine launched and cruise missiles as well. While concrete evidence indicating that the DPRK has miniaturized nuclear warheads remains elusive, many experts believe that the isolationist nation has the capability to create nuclear warheads that can fit atop its ballistic missiles. Currently, experts estimate North Korea has a nuclear stockpile of 10-16 nuclear weapons with roughly half being plutonium and half uranium. As North Korea continues to advance its nuclear weapons program, the amount of weapons they can produce will increase and some experts claim that the DPRK could maintain a stockpile of 100 nuclear warheads by 2020. In addition to its nuclear program, North Korea is also suspected of possessing both chemical and biological weapon capabilities.

The United States and its allies have made efforts to address North Korea’s proliferation activities through diplomacy and sanctions. Diplomatic efforts began in the early 1990s after the United States announced its intentions to withdraw tactical nuclear weapons deployed around the world, including those in South Korea. Following this initiative, both North and South Korea signed the Joint Declaration of South and North Korea on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula in an effort to eliminate nuclear weapons completely from the Peninsula. In early 1992, North Korea signed a safeguard agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) which called for an initial declaration of its nuclear facilities and allowed the IAEA to independently inspect the sites.

However, in late 1992, the IAEA discovered inconsistencies with the initial report and requested special inspections to investigate the discrepancies. North Korea refused to allow inspections of the suspect facilities and in March of 1993 gave notice to the United Nations Security Council of its intentions to withdraw from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). However by mid 1993, the DPRK reversed this decision just before its withdrawal would be complete and began negotiations to allow the IAEA to resume its work. In 1994, the United States and North Korea entered into an agreement known as the Agreed Framework which called for the U.S. to supply the DPRK with a light water reactor facility to generate energy in exchange for “freezing” its nuclear program. However, by 2003, more complications between North Korea and the IAEA prompted Pyongyang to order inspectors out of the country and withdraw from the NPT. Further efforts to address North Korea’s nuclear program were made in the form of multi-lateral discussions between China, the United States, North and South Korea, Japan, and Russia. However after several rounds of discussions, talks broke down yielding no results.

Ballistic Missile Program

North Korea’s efforts to develop ballistic missile capabilities date back to the Cold War, when the Soviet Union and China likely provided the isolationist nation with technical assistance. The DPRK’s ballistic missile capabilities have progressed significantly over the last few decades, evolving from artillery rockets in the 1960s, to short- and medium-range ballistic missiles in the 1980s and 90s, and finally developing and testing intercontinental-range ballistic missiles in the late 1990s and 2000s. In 1965, North Korean leader Kim Il Sung chose to develop an indigenous ballistic missile capability, increasing the military budget and relying on outside assistance from the Soviet Union and China. As a result, the isolationist state was able to make rapid progress with its ballistic missile program by increasing funding for the program and reverse engineering the missiles of its Communist allies. In 1998, after an attempted satellite launch with a multi-stage missile, North Korea demonstrated a willingness to develop intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) that could target the United States homeland. North Korea continues to test and improve its ballistic missile capabilities and is an active proliferator of missile systems, components, and technology.

NK Missile Ranges

Short-Range Ballistic Missiles (fewer than 100 total deployed)

The Kim regime possesses a variety of short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs) and the U.S. estimates that North Korea deploys over 600 Scud missile variants. Specifically, the isolationist state may currently employ three types of SRBMs: the KN-02, the Hwasong-5Hwasong-6, and Hwasong-7. The KN-02 has a range of up to 120 km and is operational, putting military installations in South Korea at risk. Moreover, the KN-02 is believed to have a payload capacity between 250 and 500 kg. Other SRBMs employed by North Korea are the Hwasong-5 and the Hwasong-6, both of which were developed with Soviet assistance in the 1970s and 80s and are speculated to have been tested and deployed. The Hwasong-5—also known as the Scud-B—has a range of 300 km and the Hwasong-6—also known as the Scud-C—has a range of 500 km. It is believed that Pyongyang sold the Hwasong-6 to Iran, where it is known as the Shehab 2.  The Hwasong-7, or Scud-D, was developed indigenously by North Korea, has a range between 700 and 995 km, and a payload capacity of around 500kg. It can carry chemical or high explosive warheads, possibly even having the capacity to be fitted with miniaturized nuclear warheads.  All three of the Hwasong SRBMs are able to be equipped with high explosive warheads and may be capable of delivering biological, chemical, or nuclear payloads as well. All of the North Korea’s Hwasong SRBMs have the range to strike targets anywhere in South Korea and in small parts of southern Japan.

Model Propellant Deployment Range (km) Number of Launchers
Hwasong-5 (Scud-B Variant) Liquid Road-Mobile 300 Fewer than 100
Hwasong-6 (Scud-C Variant) Liquid Road-Mobile 500 Fewer than 100
Hwasong-7 (Scud-D, Scud-ER) Liquid Road-Mobile 700-995 Fewer than 100
KN-02 (Toksa) Solid Road-Mobile 120 Fewer than 100

Medium-Range Ballistic Missiles

Also known as the Rodong, the Nodong missile, which Pyongyang began developing in the late 1980s based on the Scud design, has an estimated range of 1,350-1,600 km and payload capacity of about 1000 kg. U.S. sources estimate that the DPRK has around 200 deployed Nodong missiles. Japan is the likely target of the Nodong, however, it is believed that the medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM) is relatively inaccurate, having a “circular error probable” of 2 to 4 km. The Nodong is assumed operational, and it is believed that the MRBM was tested in 2006, 2009, and 2014. North Korea’s Nodong MRBM could potentially be used to strike anywhere in South Korea or parts of southern Japan.

Model Propellant Deployment Range (km) Number of Launchers
Nodong Liquid Road-mobile ( fewer than 50 deployed) 1,250 Fewer than 50
Polaris-2 (Pukguksong-2/KN-15) Solid Road-mobile 1,200 + (est.) N/A

Intermediate-Range Ballistic Missiles

Pyongyang is believed to have two types of intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs): the Taepodong-1 and the Musudan. The Taepodong-1 was North Korea’s first multi-stage ballistic missile and is currently operational. The IRBM has an estimated range of 2,200 km and a payload capacity between 700 and 1,000 kg. Satellite photographs of the Taepodong-1 have caused experts to speculate that the intermediate-range missile has two stages: the first stage consists of components from the medium-range Nodong missile and the second stage is made up of components from the short-range Hwasong-5 missile. In 1998, a three stage mod of the Taepodong-1 was tested in an attempt to put a satellite into low earth orbit. During the test, the first two stages worked correctly, however, the third stage malfunctioned and the test was a failure.

The DPRK’s other IRBM is the Musudan. The Musudan—also known as the Nodong-B or the Taepodong-X—has a speculated range of 2,500 to 4,000 km and an estimated payload capacity of 1,200 kg. The likely targets of the Musudan missile are U.S. bases in the Pacific, Okinawa, and Japan. North Korea first tested the Musudan in 2016, conducting a total of eight tests that year. Of these tests, only one was confirmed to be successful. U.S. sources estimate that North Korea has fewer than 50 Musudan and Taepodong-1 IRBM missiles. IRBMs fired from North Korea can target South Korea and Japan along with U.S. military bases in the Pacific.

Model Propellant Deployment Range (km) Number of Launchers
Taepodong-1 Liquid Fixed 2,200 (est.) Unknown
Musudan Liquid Road-Mobile ( fewer than 50 deployed) 3,200+ Fewer than 50

Intercontinental-Range Ballistic Missiles

North Korea’s known intercontinental-range ballistic missiles are the Taepodong series of missiles and the KN-08. The Taepodong-2/Paektusan-2 is a two to three-stage ballistic missile with an estimated range of 6,000 – 9,000 km and a payload capacity of 100 to 500 kg. The DPRK tested the Taepodong-2 in 2006, but the missile failed to perform to standards. Nonetheless, the Taepodong-2 is considered operational and has the capability to strike Alaska and the U.S. West Coast.

Recently, North Korea has developed and tested a three-stage version of the Taepodong-2 called the Unha that, according to Pyongyang, is a rocket designed to put a satellite into orbit. However, some experts speculate that the long-range rocket could be employed as a silo-based ICBM. If deployed as a ballistic missile, the Unha has a potential range of 10,000 km and is estimated to have a payload capacity of between 100 and 1,000 kg, meaning that the missile could be used to deliver a nuclear payload to targets in the central United States. The Unha has been tested four times: April 2009, April 2012, December 2012, and February 2016. North Korean officials claim the rocket failed to put a satellite into orbit during the first two tests, but was successful during the last two. Despite the true intentions of the Kim regime, the successful tests of the Unha rocket demonstrate a North Korean ability to develop a multi-stage ballistic missile capable of striking the U.S. homeland.

In April 2012, during a parade to honor its founder, Kim Il Sung, the DPRK displayed a new ICBM known as the KN-08. The KN-08 is a road-mobile ICBM that has never been tested, but experts estimate that it has the potential to strike the continental United States with a nuclear payload. The road-mobile capability of the KN-08 and the corresponding increase in launch area uncertainty present a significant challenge for U.S. and allied missile defense forces.

Model Propellant Deployment Range (km) Number of Launchers
Taepodong 2 Liquid Fixed 5,500+ Unknown
KN-08 Liquid Road-mobile 5,500+ at least 6

Submarine-Launched Ballistic Missiles

The DPRK’s submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) is the KN-11—also known as the Polaris-1—and is still in the testing phase. The range and payload capacity specifications of the KN-11 are unknown, however, the SLBM is believed to be comparable to the Soviet single-stage liquid-fueled R-27 that has a range of 2,400 km and a 650 kg payload. In early 2016, state media footage released by North Korea showed the testing of an SLBM—likely the KN-11—however, the tests are reported to have been unsuccessful. To complement its developing SLBM program, North Korea is also working on deploying a submarine capable of launching ballistic missiles.

Currently, North Korea is in the process of reverse engineering a Soviet-era Golf-II class submarine, which, although obsolete by modern standards, has the capability to launch nuclear-armed ballistic missiles. While reports indicate that some North Korean test SLBMs were launched from submersible vessels, the Kim regime is likely years away from developing any operational ballistic missile submarines. Moreover, if a fleet of submarines are developed based on the Golf-II design, it is likely that they will be outdated and easily detectable by more advanced submarine hunting equipment.

Model       Propellant Deployment        Range (km) Number of Launchers
KN-11 (Polaris-1, Bukkeukseong-1) Solid Submarine (Not deployed) Unknown at least 1

Cruise Missiles

In the summer of 2014, North Korea released footage showing the launch of a cruise missile appearing to be a variant of Russia’s Kh-35 anti-ship cruise missile. If similar to the Russian Kh-35, Pyongyang’s cruise missile variant has a range of about 130-140 km and travels at high speeds near the sea’s surface. This sea-skimming cruise missile threatens U.S. and allied naval forces in the region, including the American and Japanese Aegis missile defense vessels.

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