12.11.2020 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

On the Development of DPRK’s Nuclear Capabilities


Having recently reported on the development of the nuclear missile arsenal possessed by DPRK the author would like to touch upon the capabilities that North Korea has regarding weapons of mass destruction.

Number of nuclear warheads

According to a report from the US Army Training and Doctrine Command, North Korea has from 20 to 60 nuclear bombs, and it is capable of producing up to 6 new devices each year. Theoretically, even in one year North Korea could have up to 100 units of nuclear weapons.

In addition, the US military believes that the country has the ability to fire ballistic missiles with anthrax and smallpox at South Korea, the United States, and Japan, and that the North Korean regime has approximately 20 different types of chemical weapons amounting to 2,500-5,000 tons, meaning that it owns the third-largest chemical arsenal in the world.

According to assessments done by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), in January 2020 the DPRK had between 30 and 40 nuclear warheads, which is about 10 more warheads compared to last year: these figures are preliminary, since Pyongyang does not provide official information concerning its nuclear capabilities.

The well-known nuclear scientist Siegfried Hecker believes that “the North Koreans may have enough fuel for bombs for about 40-45 nuclear devices,” and considers alarmist estimates of 80+ to be an exaggeration. On September 17, 2020, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff John Hyten stated that North Korea possesses “few” nuclear weapons. Specific figures were “classified, and in many ways difficult to understand,” but “the small number is a strong indication that a nuclear capability exists that could threaten its neighbors or the United States.”

Nonetheless, North Korea’s military doctrine positions WMD only in the capacity of deterrence. As Kim Jong-un stated in a speech commemorating the 70th anniversary of the end of the Korean War, “To avoid suffering and pain such as the war of the 1950s, absolute strength was needed to prevent the war itself, and contain it … Now no one can ignore us. And whoever dares to be contemptuous of the other side will have to pay a great price. Thanks to our reliable, effective, self-protective nuclear deterrent forces, the word ‘war’ will no longer exist on this Earth, and the security and future of our state will be everlastingly and decisively guaranteed… ”.

Manufacturing nuclear weaponry

The 2018 Defense White Paper published by the South Korean Ministry of Defense states that the regime is estimated to possess 50 kilograms of weapons-grade plutonium and a “considerable” amount of highly enriched uranium, and its technology to miniaturize a nuclear warhead has also reached a “considerable” level.

According to satellite imagery and data from the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), the Pyongyang Uranium Concentrate Plant, which is the only known source of material used to produce highly enriched uranium for North Korea’s nuclear program (so-called yellowcake), continues to operate and retool itself. Indicators of ongoing production include full chemical waste storage tanks.

Experts such as Joseph Bermudez and Victor Cha affirm that the ongoing work at the plant demonstrates “unrelenting effort to grow their capabilities, despite three summits and the utter failure of the one diplomatic negotiation that Trump has put any effort into”.

In a report presented to Congress in July 2020, the Department of State said that “throughout 2019, the United States continued to have significant concerns regarding North Korea’s nuclear weapons program and its continued production of fissile material”. Citing a report from the International Atomic Energy Agency, the State Department claims that North Korea continued to operate nuclear facilities throughout 2018 and 2019, while the US-North Korea summits and negotiations were in progress. Of course, this data was mixed with speculation that the Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Site was never actually destroyed, and could be rebuilt again, and that “North Korea could create another nuclear test site if it wanted”.

In addition, back in August 2019 the IAEA reported that there are signs of ongoing mining, milling, and enrichment activities at uranium mining and enrichment facilities.

On July 8, 2020, the American television channel CNN, citing data from experts at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Vermont, reported that new satellite images taken by the American company Planet Labs indicate the presence of a previously unknown operational nuclear facility in the village of Wollo-ri in the vicinity of Pyongyang. The photographs clearly show the guarded premises, entrances to underground structures, and various facilities on the ground. According to Professor Jeffrey Lewis, “It has all the hallmarks of a North Korean nuclear facility”, including underground infrastructure. In this regard, “there is no doubt that North Korea continues to develop nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles.” Another expert on North Korea, Ankit Panda, draws a connection between this facility and the country’s nuclear program.

The CIA and the Pentagon declined to comment on the organization’s connection with North Korea’s nuclear program, and the South Korean Army and intelligence services completely denied the CNN report. In their opinion, the industrial facility reported by CNN is not related to the development of nuclear weapons. The South Korean Ministry of Defense points out that the satellite images clearly show a drinking water bottling plant located in the village of Wollo-ri. There cannot be any nuclear facilities near these kinds of enterprises.

Even the notorious Daily NK controverted the information: according to their sources, a military-political air defense school is located in Wollo-ri, and there are no underground structures.

On July 29, 38 North said that based on satellite imagery analysis North Korea continues to enrich uranium at its Yongbyon nuclear facility. This is indicated by the regular appearance of rail cars and what were thought to be tanker trucks with liquid nitrogen. However, there is no evidence that the five-megawatt nuclear reactor at the facility was actually functioning.

Amidst the floods in the summer and fall of 2020, there was a debate in academia about how much they damaged the Yongbyon facility. In August 2020, a 38 North analysis showed an image of a completely flooded dam in the Kuryong River that was completely submerged, and indicated that flooding could have potentially damaged pumps or clogged the pipelines that draw water from the river, leading to a reactor shutdown. However, later images showed that the waters had receded, and that the uranium enrichment plant was not likely to have been damaged.

On September 26, 38 North reported that a reservoir dam near Yongbyon was breached, which could create a potential problem for continuous reactor operations.

An IAEA report from September 1, 2020 notes that satellite images of North Korean nuclear infrastructure in Yongbyon, where coolers did function, indicate some activity at the uranium enrichment facilities, as well as the possibility of construction work associated with a light-water reactor. It is also assumed that uranium enrichment facilities operate in the vicinity of Pyongyang. In this context, the IAEA is expressing concern about North Korea continuing work in the bounds of its nuclear program. However, more recent satellite images from October 24 and afterwards show that North Korea has begun to recover from the damage incurred due to flooding. Repair work is being performed on the dam. However, experts did not find any evidence of plutonium extraction. The Yongbyon nuclear reactor, which produced plutonium for nuclear weapons, has not operated since December 2018, the report stated South Korean intelligence services also believe that the five-megawatt nuclear reactor is currently out of service.

It is worth noting that in one of his letters to Trump, Kim mentions the Nuclear Weapons Institute, something which he is ready to shut down if the United States takes reciprocal action. Nuclear scientist Siegfried Hecker said he was not entirely sure what the Nuclear Weapons Institute was, but compared it to the Los Alamos National Laboratory in the United States, which develops nuclear weapons.

On July 23, 2020, the Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI), a nonprofit panel of experts, said that North Korea’s handling of nuclear materials remains the worst in the world, although it is completely unclear to the author what was used as the basis to form these conclusions.

Manufacturing other types of WMD

In the above report, the State Department also concluded that, according to North Korean defectors and US intelligence analyses, the DPRK has been conducting operations involving biological weapons since the 1960s, which is in violation of its obligations under the Biological Weapons Convention. And back in 1993, Russian intelligence supposedly reported that North Korea was conducting military research with anthrax, cholera, bubonic plague, and smallpox.   And this given that one kilogram of anthrax bacillus is enough to kill 50,000 people.

There is speculation that North Korea may have stockpiled biological weapons materials that the military could potentially use. It is apparent that evidence is already starting to squeeze out the principle that has been mentioned: “If, from our point of view, a bloody regime can conceive of something horrific, then it definitely must be doing it, because why would a bloody regime NOT conceive of something terrible?”

A typical article is one in the journal Politico, where all the work done by the DPRK on combating the coronavirus (from creating a vaccine to attempts to gain access to modern medical research) is perceived as Kim Jong-un’s desire to “use the humanitarian crisis to beef up his biological weapons arsenal”. The main rationale put forth by Andrew Weber, the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear, Chemical & Biological Defense Programs during the Obama administration, and RAND researcher Bruce Bennett is simple: If a tyrannical regime can do something nasty, it is probably already doing it.

As far as chemical weapons are concerned, the North may have about 20 types of them, ranging in volume from 2,500 to 5,000 tons. DPRK could have the third-largest reserves of chemical weapons in the world.

Developing delivery systems

Above all else, everyone is waiting for when the DPRK finally launches a submarine capable of carrying submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs). On May 29, 2020, 38 North reported that an unidentified object, about 16 meters long, is visible in recent satellite imagery of a North Korean shipyard where construction of a new ballistic missile submarine is underway. However, “its purpose is unknown, and there are no vehicles or equipment around it”.

On October 6, Peter Brooks, former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Asian and Pacific Affairs, noted that North Korea’s acquisition of SLBMs would further complicate international efforts to denuclearize it. To put it more precisely, the Pukkykson-3 rocket already exists, and all that remains is to put it on a vessel. Brooks added that North Korea’s submarine fleet is considered one of the largest, albeit not the most combat capable, in the world, and has 80 submarines. He kept silent about the fact that most of those are better suited to transporting saboteurs, and helping commit acts of sabotage in coastal waters. However, he noted that most North Korean submarines run on diesel fuel, and are “acoustically noisy”.

But the delivery systems could end up being much simpler: North Korea has scores of medium and heavy artillery (about six thousand gun barrels), which can keep South Korean inhabited areas in their crosshairs. According to calculations made by the RAND corporation, if it came out “with all guns blazing”, the DPRK could destroy more than 200,000 people in South Korea within one hour.

At the same time, the possibility cannot be barred that North Korea could turn its artillery into weapons of mass destruction: its chemical weapons could be used in artillery shells, and a large-caliber MLRS could fire a tactical nuclear charge.  The report, citing a member of the Clinton-era National Security Council, states that “we never attacked North Korea’s nuclear complex for the simple reason that we knew Seoul would get slammed with artillery strikes that would kill a lot of people and create mass panic. That was something we could not risk”.

Accordingly, if weapons of mass destruction are used, “up to 25 million South Koreans, 1 million Chinese, and 500,000 other foreign citizens – including 150,000 Americans – might be in immediate danger. This could trigger mass panic and prompt a massive civilian evacuation of Seoul and other population centers”.

So it is possible to agree with the conclusions drawn by RAND that “North Korea is on a trajectory of nuclear development that has transformed it into a fundamentally different kind of strategic challenge – a state with a significant nuclear arsenal, an increasing range and number of delivery systems, and a nuclear doctrine of early or even preemptive use”.

Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, a leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of the Far East at the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

Please select digest to download: