North Korea’s Nuclear Weapons and Missile Programs



Updated July 14, 2020
North Korea’s Nuclear Weapons and Missile Programs
Overview

Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Site. It dynamited the entrances to
North Korea continues to advance its nuclear weapons and
two test tunnels in May 2018 prior to the first Trump-Kim
missile programs despite high-level diplomatic efforts and
summit in front of a group of journalists. In an October
UN Security Council sanctions. In April 2018, North
2018 meeting with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Kim
Korean leader Kim Jong Un said that nuclear and long-
Jong Un “invited inspectors to visit the Punggye-ri nuclear
range missile testing was no longer necessary because the
test site to confirm that it has been irreversibly dismantled,”
country had achieved its objectives. However, in the past
but this has not yet occurred.
two years, North Korea has increased the testing pace for its
ballistic missile and submarine-launched systems. In late
Nuclear Material Production
December 2019, Kim announced that, due to the United
and Warheads
States’ policies, “there is no ground” for North Korea to
North Korea continues to produce fissile material
continue to maintain its testing moratoria.
(plutonium and highly enriched uranium) for weapons.
North Korea restarted its plutonium production facilities
Recent missile tests suggest that North Korea is striving to
after it withdrew from a nuclear agreement in 2009, and is
build a credible nuclear warfighting capability designed to
operating at least one centrifuge enrichment plant at its
evade regional ballistic missile defenses. Such an approach
Yongbyon nuclear complex. During the September 2018
likely reinforces a deterrence and coercive diplomacy
North-South Korea Pyongyang Summit, the North stated it
strategy—lending more credibility as it demonstrates
would “permanently disable” the Yongbyon facilities if the
capability—but it also raises questions about crisis stability
United States took “corresponding measures.” U.S. officials
and escalation control. Congress may choose to examine
have said that other clandestine enrichment facilities likely
U.S. policy in light of these advances.
exist. Open-source reports, citing U.S. government sources,
identified one such site at Kangson. News reports in August
North Korean statements describe North Korea’s nuclear
2017 said that one component of the intelligence
arsenal as a deterrent to U.S. “nuclear war threats.” Kim
community (IC), the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency
Jong Un said at the 2016 Workers’ Party Congress that
(DIA), estimated a stockpile of up to 60 nuclear warheads.
“nuclear weapons of the DPRK can be used only by a final
Some experts have estimated that North Korea could
order of the Supreme Commander of the Korean People’s
produce enough nuclear material for an additional seven
Army [Kim Jong Un] to repel invasion or attack from a
warheads per year.
hostile nuclear weapons state and make retaliatory strikes.”
The U.S. intelligence community has said North Korean
According to the U.S. IC, North Korea aims to develop a
leaders view nuclear weapons as “critical to regime
nuclear warhead that is “miniaturized,” or sufficiently
survival” and intended for “deterrence, international
lightweight and small enough to mount on a long-range
prestige, and coercive diplomacy.”
ballistic missile. As of July 2017, a DIA assessment and
some outside observers believed North Korea had achieved
In the April 2018 Panmunjom Declaration by North and
the level of miniaturization required to fit a nuclear device
South Korea and the June 2018 U.S.-North Korea Joint
on weapons ranging across the spectrum of its missiles,
Statement, Kim Jong Un pledged to improve relations and
from short-range ballistic missiles (SRBM) to
“work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean
intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM).
Peninsula.” However, the Director of National Intelligence
(DNI) said in his 2019 threat assessment to Congress that
Delivery Vehicles
“North Korea is unlikely to give up all of its nuclear
Recognizing the danger to international peace and security
weapons and production capabilities, even as it seeks to
posed by North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, U.N.
negotiate partial denuclearization steps to obtain key US
Security Council (UNSC) resolutions prohibit development
and international concessions.”
of the means of delivering conventional and nuclear
payloads, in addition to the nuclear weapons themselves.
Nuclear Testing
UNSC resolutions ban “all ballistic missile tests” by North
On September 3, 2017, North Korea announced it had
Korea. A ballistic missile is a projectile powered by a
tested a hydrogen bomb (or two-stage thermonuclear
rocket engine until it reaches the apogee of its trajectory, at
warhead) that it said it was perfecting for delivery on an
which point it falls back to earth using earth’s gravity.
intercontinental ballistic missile. North Korea has tested a
Projectiles are categorized as short-range, medium-range, or
nuclear explosive device six times since 2006. Each test
intercontinental based on the distance from the launch site
produced underground blasts progressively higher in
they can strike a target. Ballistic missiles can deliver
magnitude and estimated yield. In April 2018, North Korea
nuclear and large conventional payloads at high speed and
announced that it had achieved its goals and would no
over great distances.
longer conduct nuclear tests, and would close down its
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North Korea’s Nuclear Weapons and Missile Programs
North Korea is developing nuclear weapons and delivery
Korean peninsula with either a conventional or nuclear
systems that possess certain critical features: mobility,
payload.
reliability, potency, precision, and survivability. Mobile
weapons have increased survivability compared with fixed
North Korea has committed to expanding the performance
launch sites and static stockpiles. Reliability, potency,
of its precision guided tactical weapons. The newly
precision, and in-flight maneuverability work together to
developed KN-24 and KN-25 pose significant threats to
maximize the impact of North Korea’s limited quantity of
South Korea and U.S. assets on the peninsula. The KN-24
weapons, launchers, and warheads. A key element to North
is a tactical system with a mobile launcher, solid propellant,
Korean missile doctrine, therefore, is continued testing to
and relatively large payload. The KN-24 demonstrates the
develop, ensure, and demonstrate these key features.
guidance system and in-flight maneuverability to achieve
precision strikes. Outside experts assess that the North
Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles
Koreans may ultimately intend the KN-24 to serve as a dual
North Korea improved its ability to strike the entire
capable system.
continental United States with an ICBM through a series of
tests in 2017. The successful launches of the liquid-
The KN-25 blurs the line between rocket and missile;
propellant, multistage Hwasong-14 (U.S. designated KN-
however, it achieves the same effect as a traditional SRBM
20) and Hwasong-15 (U.S. designated KN-22) in July and
by delivering destructive effects on a precision target at
November 2017 demonstrated significant advances in North
significant range thanks to advanced avionics, inertial and
Korean missile technology. Despite these improvements,
satellite guidance systems, and aerodynamic structures. The
reliability of these systems remains uncertain. Without
KN-25 carries a conventional payload up to 380 km,
further testing, neither the North Koreans nor others can
allowing it to strike any target in South Korea. Tests in
assess whether the missiles will function as designed in
2019 and 2020 demonstrate that a crew can launch the four
combat. The absence of ICBM tests since the only
rockets composing the KN-25 system at 20-second
successful launch of the Hwasong-15 in November 2017
intervals. Since the KN-25 is a more economical system
may also suggest that the North Korean missile force
than traditional SRBMs, the North Koreans may seek to fire
possesses only a small quantity of these weapons or that it
large numbers of these rockets in salvos to overwhelm the
is continuing its test moratorium for nontechnical reasons.
ability of an adversary’s missile defense systems to
successfully engage all incoming projectiles. Salvo firing
Short- and Medium-Range Missiles
projectiles gives them the greatest likelihood of
In the past year, North Korea increased short-range ballistic
accomplishing their intended effect in the face of even the
missile (SRBM) test launches. These launches violate
most advanced missile defense systems.
United Nations Security Council resolutions. North Korean
SRBMs and medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBM),
The newest crop of North Korean weapons—including the
precision-guided multiple launch rocket systems (MLRS),
Hwasong-14, Hwasong-15, KN-15, KN-23, KN-24, and
and artillery pose the most acute near-term threats to other
KN-25—demonstrates mobility, potency, precision, and has
nations. Advances in these systems demonstrate the North
characteristics that make the missiles difficult to defeat in
Korean shift toward solid-propellants and satellite guidance
flight. These traits suggest that the North Korean test
systems; advances that could carry over to larger, more
program may seek to achieve more than a simple political
potent systems like the Hwasong series ICBMs. These
statement, and that it may be intended to increase the
developments provide the projectiles greater mobility and
reliability, effectiveness, and survivability of their ballistic
survivability prior to launch and greater potency and
missile force. North Korean tests have demonstrated
precision on target.
growing success and, coupled with increased operational
training exercises, suggest a pattern designed to strengthen
In the MRBM category, the KN-15 poses the greatest threat
the credibility of North Korea’s regional nuclear deterrent
to North Korea’s regional adversaries and exhibits
strategy.
advanced technology. Known in North Korea as the
Pukguksong-2, the KN-15 is a solid-propellant missile
The recent advances in North Korea’s ballistic missile test
capable of striking mainland Japan and carrying a nuclear
program appear to be directed at developing capabilities to
or conventional payload—known as dual capable. The
defeat or degrade the effectiveness of missile defenses
North Koreans fire the missile from a tracked vehicle,
deployed in the region: Patriot, Aegis Ballistic Missile
which gives the system mobility and makes prelaunch
Defense (BMD), and Terminal High Altitude Area Defense
targeting of the system difficult.
(THAAD). In addition, North Korea’s progress with
submarine-launched ballistic missiles suggests an effort to
The KN-23 SRBM exemplifies the most notable advance to
counter land-based THAAD missile defenses by launching
the North Korean inventory in the smaller category of
attacks from positions at sea outside the THAAD’s radar
weapons. The May 2019 tests of two KN-23 missiles
field of view, although local Aegis BMD systems could
revealed an atypical flight path in which the weapon flew
likely still track these projectiles.
much closer to the ground than a traditional ballistic
missile. On terminal approach to its target, the KN-23
Mary Beth D. Nikitin, Specialist in Nonproliferation
conducted a “pull-up” maneuver, intended to complicate the
Samuel D. Ryder, Research Assistant
ability of ground-based interceptors to destroy the hostile
missile in flight by increasing its speed and angle of attack
IF10472
to the target. The KN-23 can strike any location on the
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North Korea’s Nuclear Weapons and Missile Programs


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