Updated January 5, 2021
North Korea’s Nuclear Weapons and Missile Programs

visit the [test site] to confirm that it has been irreversibly
North Korea continues to advance its nuclear weapons and
dismantled,” but this has not yet occurred.
missile programs despite UN Security Council sanctions
and high-level diplomatic efforts. North Korea is observing
Nuclear Material Production
a self-imposed moratorium on nuclear and long-range
and Warheads
missile testing. Recent ballistic missile tests and an October
North Korea reportedly continues to produce fissile
2020 military parade suggest that North Korea is continuing
material (plutonium and highly enriched uranium) for
to build a nuclear warfighting capability designed to evade
weapons. North Korea restarted its plutonium production
regional ballistic missile defenses. Such an approach likely
facilities after it withdrew from a nuclear agreement in
reinforces a deterrence and coercive diplomacy strategy—
2009, and is operating at least one centrifuge enrichment
lending more credibility as it demonstrates capability—but
plant at its Yongbyon nuclear complex. During the
it also raises questions about crisis stability and escalation
September 2018 North-South Korea Pyongyang Summit,
control. Congress may choose to examine U.S. policy in
the North stated it would “permanently disable” the
light of these advances.
Yongbyon facilities if the United States took
“corresponding measures.” U.S. officials have said that
In the April 2018 Panmunjom Declaration by North and
other clandestine enrichment facilities likely exist. News
South Korea and the June 2018 U.S.-North Korea Joint
reports in August 2017 said that one component of the
Statement, Kim Jong Un pledged to improve relations and
intelligence community (IC), the U.S. Defense Intelligence
“work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean
Agency (DIA), estimated a stockpile of up to 60 nuclear
Peninsula.” However, the Director of National Intelligence
warheads. Some experts have estimated that North Korea
(DNI) said in his 2019 threat assessment to Congress that
could produce enough nuclear material for an additional
“North Korea is unlikely to give up all of its nuclear
seven warheads per year.
weapons and production capabilities, even as it seeks to
negotiate partial denuclearization steps to obtain key US
According to the U.S. IC, North Korea aims to develop a
and international concessions.” Trump and Kim held a
nuclear warhead that is “miniaturized,” or sufficiently
second summit 2019 but were unable to reach agreement,
lightweight and small enough to mount on a long-range
and nuclear disarmament has not progressed since then.
ballistic missile. As of July 2017, a DIA assessment and
some outside observers believed North Korea had achieved
North Korean statements describe North Korea’s nuclear
the level of miniaturization required to fit a nuclear device
arsenal as a deterrent to U.S. “nuclear war threats.” Kim
on weapons ranging across the spectrum of its missiles,
Jong Un said at the 2016 Workers’ Party Congress that
from short-range ballistic missiles (SRBM) to
“nuclear weapons of the DPRK can be used only by a final
intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM).
order of the Supreme Commander of the Korean People’s
Army [Kim Jong Un] to repel invasion or attack from a
Delivery Vehicles
hostile nuclear weapons state and make retaliatory strikes.”
U.N. Security Council (UNSC) resolutions prohibit North
The U.S. intelligence community has said North Korean
Korea’s development of the means of delivering
leaders view nuclear weapons as “critical to regime
conventional and nuclear payloads, in addition to the
survival” and intended for “deterrence, international
nuclear weapons themselves. UNSC resolutions ban “all
prestige, and coercive diplomacy.”
ballistic missile tests” by North Korea. A ballistic missile is
a projectile powered by a rocket engine until it reaches the
Nuclear Testing
apogee of its trajectory, at which point it falls back to earth
North Korea has tested a nuclear explosive device six times
using earth’s gravity. They are categorized as short-range,
since 2006. Each test produced underground blasts
medium-range, or intercontinental based on the distance
progressively higher in magnitude and estimated yield.
from the launch site they can strike a target. Ballistic
North Korea conducted its most recent test on September 3,
missiles can deliver nuclear and large conventional
2017. A North Korean press release stated it had tested a
payloads at high speed and over great distances.
hydrogen bomb (or two-stage thermonuclear warhead) that
it was perfecting for delivery on an intercontinental ballistic
North Korea is developing nuclear weapons and delivery
missile. In April 2018, North Korea announced that it had
systems that possess certain critical features: mobility,
achieved its goals,would no longer conduct nuclear tests,
reliability, potency, precision, and survivability. Mobile
and would close down its Punggye-ri nuclear test site. It
weapons have increased survivability compared with fixed
dynamited the entrances to two test tunnels in May 2018
launch sites and static stockpiles. Reliability, potency,
prior to the first Trump-Kim summit in front of a group of
precision, and in-flight maneuverability work together to
journalists. In an October 2018 meeting with Secretary of
maximize the impact of North Korea’s limited quantity of
State Mike Pompeo, Kim Jong Un “invited inspectors to
weapons, launchers, and warheads. A key element to North

North Korea’s Nuclear Weapons and Missile Programs
Korean missile doctrine, therefore, is continued testing to
North Korea has committed to expanding the performance
develop, ensure, and demonstrate these features.
of its precision guided tactical weapons. The newly
developed KN-24 and KN-25 pose significant threats to
Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles
South Korea and U.S. assets on the peninsula. The KN-24
North Korea improved its ability to strike the entire
is a tactical system with a mobile launcher, solid propellant,
continental United States with an ICBM through a series of
and relatively large payload. The KN-24 demonstrates the
tests in 2017. The successful launches of the liquid-
guidance system and in-flight maneuverability to achieve
propellant, multistage Hwasong-14 (U.S. designated KN-
precision strikes. Outside experts assess that the North
20) and Hwasong-15 (U.S. designated KN-22) in July and
Koreans may ultimately intend the KN-24 to serve as a dual
November 2017 demonstrated significant advances in North
capable system.
Korean missile technology. Despite these improvements,
reliability of these systems remains uncertain. Without
The KN-25 blurs the line between rocket and missile;
further testing, neither the North Koreans nor others can
however, it achieves the same effect as a traditional SRBM
assess whether the missiles will function as designed in
by delivering destructive effects on a precision target at
combat. The absence of ICBM tests since the only
significant range thanks to advanced avionics, inertial and
successful launch of the Hwasong-15 in November 2017
satellite guidance systems, and aerodynamic structures. The
may also suggest that the North Korean missile force
KN-25 carries a conventional payload up to 380 km,
possesses only a small quantity of these weapons or that it
allowing it to strike any target in South Korea. Tests in
is continuing its test moratorium for nontechnical reasons.
2019 and 2020 demonstrate that a crew can launch the four
North Korea displayed a larger new Hwasong ICBM at an
rockets composing the KN-25 system at 20-second
October 2020 military parade but has not flight tested it.
intervals. Since the KN-25 is a more economical system
Experts debate whether the missile is intended for multiple
than traditional SRBMs, the North Koreans may seek to fire
warheads (MIRV).
large numbers of these rockets in salvos to overwhelm the
ability of an adversary’s missile defense systems to
Short- and Medium-Range Missiles
successfully engage all incoming projectiles. Salvo firing
In 2019 and 2020, North Korea increased short-range
projectiles gives them the greatest likelihood of
ballistic missile (SRBM) test launches. These launches
accomplishing their intended effect in the face of even the
violate United Nations Security Council resolutions. North
most advanced missile defense systems.
Korean SRBMs and medium-range ballistic missiles
(MRBM), precision-guided multiple launch rocket systems
The newest crop of North Korean weapons—including the
(MLRS), and artillery pose the most acute near-term threats
Hwasong-14, Hwasong-15, KN-15, KN-23, KN-24, and
to other nations. Advances in these systems demonstrate the
KN-25—demonstrates mobility, potency, precision, and has
North Korean shift toward solid-propellants and satellite
characteristics that make the missiles difficult to defeat in
guidance systems; advances that could carry over to larger,
flight. These traits suggest that the North Korean test
more potent systems like the Hwasong series ICBMs. These
program may seek to achieve more than a simple political
developments provide the projectiles greater mobility and
statement, and that it may be intended to increase the
survivability prior to launch and greater potency and
reliability, effectiveness, and survivability of their ballistic
precision on target.
missile force. North Korean tests have demonstrated
growing success and, coupled with increased operational
In the MRBM category, the KN-15 poses the greatest threat
training exercises, suggest a pattern designed to strengthen
to North Korea’s regional adversaries and exhibits
the credibility of North Korea’s regional nuclear deterrent
advanced technology. Known in North Korea as the
Pukguksong-2, the KN-15 is a solid-propellant missile
capable of striking mainland Japan and carrying a nuclear
The recent advances in North Korea’s ballistic missile test
or conventional payload—known as dual capable. The
program appear to be directed at developing capabilities to
North Koreans fire the missile from a tracked vehicle,
defeat or degrade the effectiveness of missile defenses
which gives the system mobility and makes prelaunch
deployed in the region: Patriot, Aegis Ballistic Missile
targeting of the system difficult.
Defense (BMD), and Terminal High Altitude Area Defense
(THAAD). In addition, North Korea’s progress with
The KN-23 SRBM exemplifies the most notable advance to
submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM) suggests an
the North Korean inventory in the smaller category of
effort to counter land-based THAAD missile defenses by
weapons. The May 2019 tests of two KN-23 missiles
launching attacks from positions at sea outside the
revealed an atypical flight path in which the weapon flew
THAAD’s radar field of view, although local Aegis BMD
much closer to the ground than a traditional ballistic
systems could likely still track these projectiles. The
missile. On terminal approach to its target, the KN-23
Pukgugsong-3 SLBM was successfully tested in late 2019.
conducted a “pull-up” maneuver, intended to complicate the
In an October 2020 parade, North Korea unveiled a longer-
ability of ground-based interceptors to destroy the hostile
range SLBM (Pukguksong-4) but has not yet tested the
missile in flight by increasing its speed and angle of attack
to the target. The KN-23 can strike any location on the
Korean peninsula with either a conventional or nuclear
Mary Beth D. Nikitin, Specialist in Nonproliferation
Samuel D. Ryder, Research Assistant

North Korea’s Nuclear Weapons and Missile Programs

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