Updated June 6, 2019 North Korea’s Nuclear and Ballistic Missile Programs Overview North Korea has made recent advancements in its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs. Since Kim Jong-un came to power in 2012, North Korea has conducted over 80 ballistic missile test launches. In 2016, North Korea conducted two nuclear weapons tests and 26 ballistic missile flight tests on a variety of platforms. In 2017, North Korea test launched 18 ballistic missiles (with five failures), including two launches in July and another in November that many ascribe as ICBM tests (intercontinental ballistic missiles). Most recently, North Korea tested short-range ballistic missiles on May 4 and 9. It last conducted a nuclear test in September 2017. In April 2018, Kim Jong Un said that nuclear and ICBM testing was no longer necessary. UN Security Council resolutions ban all ballistic missile tests by the DPRK. Testing as well as official North Korean statements suggest that North Korea is striving to build a credible regional nuclear warfighting capability that might evade regional ballistic missile defenses. Such an approach likely reinforces a deterrence and coercive diplomacy strategy— lending more credibility as it demonstrates capability—but it also raises serious questions about crisis stability and escalation control. Congress may further examine these advances’ possible effects on U.S. policy. Nuclear Tests On September 3, 2017, North Korea announced that it had tested a hydrogen bomb (or two-stage thermonuclear warhead) that it said it was perfecting for delivery on an intercontinental ballistic missile. North Korea has tested a nuclear explosive device five other times since 2006. According to U.S. and international estimates, each test produced underground blasts that were progressively higher in magnitude and estimated yield. According to the North Korean test announcement, the country had achieved “perfect success in the test of a hydrogen bomb for intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM).” In April 2018, North Korea announced that it had achieved its goals and would no longer conduct nuclear tests, and would close down its test site. It dynamited the entrances to two test tunnels in May prior to the Trump-Kim summit. Kim Jong Un told Secretary Pompeo in an October meeting that he “invited inspectors to visit the Punggye Ri nuclear test site to confirm that it has been irreversibly dismantled.” Such an inspection has not yet occurred. Nuclear Material Production North Korea continues to produce fissile material (plutonium and highly enriched uranium) for weapons. North Korea restarted its plutonium production facilities after it withdrew from a nuclear agreement in 2009, and is operating at least one centrifuge enrichment plant at its Yongbyon nuclear complex. During the September 2018 North-South Pyongyang Summit, the North stated its willingness to “permanently disable” the Yongbyon facilities if the United States took “corresponding measures.” U.S. officials have said that it is likely other clandestine enrichment facilities exist. Open-source reports, citing U.S. government sources, identified one such site at Kangson. There is no public U.S. Intelligence Community (IC) consensus of North Korea’s fissile material stockpiles. News reports in August 2017 said that one component of the IC, the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), had estimated a stockpile of up to 60 nuclear warheads. Nongovernmental open source estimates are based on material production activities at the Yongbyon site as well as past stockpile estimates. Some experts believe that North Korea could have potentially produced enough material for approximately 35 nuclear weapons, and that North Korea could now potentially produce enough nuclear material for an additional 7 warheads per year. Doctrine North Korean statements, taken at face value, appear to describe North Korea’s nuclear arsenal as a deterrent to the U.S. “nuclear war threats.” In his 2017 New Year’s address, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un stated that the North had “achieved the status of a nuclear power,” and promised to continue to “build up our self-defense capability, the pivot of which is the nuclear forces, and the capability for preemptive strike ... to defend peace and security of our state.” Kim also said at the 2016 Workers’ Party Congress that “nuclear weapons of the DPRK can be used only by a final order of the Supreme Commander of the Korean People’s Army (Kim Jong Un) to repel invasion or attack from a hostile nuclear weapons state and make retaliatory strikes.” The U.S. intelligence community has characterized the purpose of North Korean nuclear weapons as intended for “deterrence, international prestige, and coercive diplomacy,” and that DPRK leaders view nuclear weapons as “critical to regime survival.” The North Korean leader pledged to work toward “complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” in the U.S.-DPRK Singapore Summit June 2018 statement. In its 2019 assessment to Congress, the DNI said that “North Korea is unlikely to give up all of its nuclear weapons and production capabilities, even as it seeks to negotiate partial denuclearization steps to obtain key US and international concessions.” Warheads and Delivery Systems According to the U.S. intelligence community, the prime objective of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program is to develop a nuclear warhead that is “miniaturized,” or sufficiently lighter and smaller to be mounted on long-range https://crsreports.congress.gov North Korea’s Nuclear and Ballistic Missile Programs ballistic missiles. One of the most acute near-term threats to other nations may be from the medium-range Nodong missile, which could reach all of the Korean Peninsula and some of mainland Japan. Outside the intelligence community, U.S. officials have articulated conflicting assessments of North Korea’s ability to produce a nuclear warhead for its intercontinental-range missiles. The intelligence community believes that North Korea has an ICBM capability, but that neither North Korea nor the United States knows whether that capability will work. A December 2015 Department of Defense (DOD) report, as well as the intelligence community’s 2018 worldwide threat assessment, said that “North Korea is committed to developing a long-range nuclear-armed missile that is capable of posing a direct threat to the United States.” The DOD report outlined two hypothetical ICBMs on which North Korea could mount a nuclear warhead and deliver to the continental United States: the KN-08 and the Taepodong-2, which was the base rocket for the Unha-2 space launch vehicle. North Korea has paraded what are widely considered mock-ups or engineering models of the KN-08 and KN-14 ICBMs. In 2016, the intelligence community assessed that “North Korea has already taken initial steps toward fielding this [ICBM] system, although the system has not been flight-tested.” In July 2017, the DPRK conducted what most have now assessed as two ICBM tests. In December 2012, North Korea launched an Unha-3 to deliver a satellite into space. The DOD noted that although this space launch vehicle “contributes heavily to North Korea’s long-range ballistic missile development,” the country did not test a reentry vehicle (RV), and absent an effective RV, “North Korea cannot deliver a weapon to target from an ICBM.” North Korea launched the Unha-3 again in February 2016, placing a satellite into earth orbit. Some observers assert that the Unha-3 could be used as an ICBM, but no other country has deployed a space launch vehicle as a nuclear-armed ICBM or developed an ICBM from the technology base of a space launch program alone. Recent static engine tests of a large rocket engine in late 2016 and early 2017 suggest to some progress in their ICBM program, and to others progress in developing a larger space launch vehicle. North Korea has demonstrated limited but growing success in its medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM) program and its submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) test program. Moreover, North Korea appears to be making some progress in moving slowly toward solid rocket motors for its ballistic missiles. Solid fuel is a chemically more stable option that also allows for reduced reaction and reload times. Successful tests of the Pukguksong-2 (KN-15) solid fuel MRBM in 2017 led North Korea to announce it would now mass produce those missiles. Tests of the KN23 short-range ballistic missile (SRBM) in May 2019 appear to be aimed at advancing solid fuel and guidance systems. stand at the Sohae satellite launch complex. Although the test stand could be rebuilt, some observers see this as a positive development toward denuclearization while others have suggested the stand was no longer needed for liquidfuel engines, as North Korea may be opting instead to test and deploy solid rocket motors for their missiles. There have also been reports that North Korea may now be producing liquid-fueled ICBMs at another facility outside the North Korean capital, but other experts point out developments there are not yet clear. Other observers note that closing a test stand would not prevent mass production of current designs. Mobile ballistic missiles, which North Korea is developing, and other measures also reduce U.S. detection abilities. These things together suggest that their test program may be more than just for show or to make a political statement—that it may be intended to increase the reliability, effectiveness, and survivability of their ballistic missile force. North Korea has increased ballistic missile testing in recent years. These tests have demonstrated growing success and, coupled with increased operational training exercises, suggest a pattern designed to strengthen the credibility of North Korea’s regional nuclear deterrent strategy. A recent focus in North Korea’s ballistic missile test program appears to be directed at developing a capability to defeat or degrade the effectiveness of missile defenses, such as Patriot, Aegis BMD, and THAAD, all of which are or will be deployed in the region. Some of the 2016 missile tests were lofted to much higher altitudes and shorter ranges than an optimal ballistic trajectory. On reentry, a warhead from such a launch would come in at a much steeper angle of attack and at much faster speed to its intended target, making it potentially more difficult to intercept with missile defenses. North Korea has demonstrated in 2017 the ability to launch a salvo attack with more than one missile launched in relatively short order. This is consistent with a possible goal of being able to conduct large ballistic missile attacks with large raid sizes, a capability that could make it more challenging for a missile defense system to destroy each incoming warhead. Finally, North Korea’s progress with SLBMs might suggest an effort to counter land-based THAAD missile defenses by launching attacks from positions at sea that are outside the THAAD system’s radar field of view, but not necessarily outside the capabilities of Aegis BMD systems deployed in the region. Taken together, North Korea’s progress in nuclear testing, its declared standardization of warhead designs and potential to put those warheads on MRBMs, increased confidence in the reliability of its short-range missile, and efforts seemingly designed to degrade regional ballistic missile defense systems suggest that North Korea may be building a credible regional nuclear warfighting and ICBM nuclear deterrent capability. Mary Beth D. Nikitin, Specialist in Nonproliferation Since the June 2018 Singapore Summit, reports have surfaced showing the dismantlement of a rocket engine test https://crsreports.congress.gov IF10472 North Korea’s Nuclear and Ballistic Missile Programs Disclaimer This document was prepared by the Congressional Research Service (CRS). CRS serves as nonpartisan shared staff to congressional committees and Members of Congress. It operates solely at the behest of and under the direction of Congress. 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