North Korea's Nuclear Weapon Capabilities

Daniel Berrios
March 24, 2017

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2017


Fig. 1: A depiction of the estimated global areas within range for each of North Korea's missile generations, capping out with the Taepodong-2, with a range of 6000km. [5] (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

In recent times, one of the most significant known geopolitical threats to the Western world, to say nothing of South Korea, has been the volatility of the North Korean regime and the associated stated and proven desire to become a world military power. Now under the hand of a new, young, and unpredictable leader in Kim Jong-un, the reason for concern has only grown. Over the period from October 2006, when North Korea tested their very first nuclear device, to September 2016, the explosive force of the resulting blasts increased tenfold, from less than a kiloton to approximately ten kilotons, based on data from South Korea's Defense Ministry. Repeatedly, Kim Jong-un has stated his priority on military advancement, so that the technology would "no longer [be] monopolized by imperialists". [1] Despite the difficult international dynamics of handling this liability from the perspective of the United States, it seems to be becoming clearer and clearer the necessity of properly protecting against what the North Koreans view as an inevitable attack.

Current Knowledge of Weapons Capabilities

According to Professor Siegfried Hecker of Stanford University, a renowned expert on North Korea's nuclear status and the emeritus director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, North Korea should have the capability to launch an ICBM with an attached nuclear bomb at the USA within the next ten years if the program is not constrained. This is partly based on the current range achieved by the Taepodong-2 missile, which has an approximate range of 6000km (see Fig. 1). It is also believed that Pyongyang currently has the capability to launch some missiles from mobile pads and submarines, augmenting their concealability. [1] Over the years, North Korea has been consistently reprimanded (verbally and through sanctions) by the international community for its violation of nuclear weapons treaties, but its proximity and consequent threat to South Korea, along with its backing by China's leaders who view the country as a geographical buffer between themselves and a strong US ally in South Korea, has kept it free of real and significant hindrances to its military aspirations. In 2009, Jonathan Pollack of the Brookings Institution wrote that China's energy and food assistance to the DPRK accounted for three quarters of all of the country's international trade. He went on to say that despite then-new President Barack Obama's stated policy to extend a hand to adversaries who would unclench their fist, North Korea decided go back on every denuclearization agreement negotiated by former President Bush during the Six-Party Talks in response to the UN Security Council's condemnation of an attempted launch in April. In the aftermath, Pyongyang announced they would resume all operations at the hotly debated Yongbyon nuclear facility and convert the entire country's stock of plutonium into weapons, before proceeding to exile all international inspectors. [2] In February of 2017, U.S. President Donald Trump expressed his discontent with yet another ballistic missile test by North Korea, which was widely viewed as a test of his relatively unknown policy beliefs on the subject. [3]

Looking Forward

Much of the future of North Korean relations at this point will depend on how President Trump plans to combat the issue. He has repeatedly advocated for an increase in the US's nuclear stockpile as opposed to the worldwide denuclearization widely advocated by the Obama administration and international authorities. In response to the February 12 incident, he urged Beijing to exert more influence over their ally. However, while China has suspended coal imports from the DPRK in keeping with UNSC sanctions, they have been hesitant to go further out of fear of destabilizing the regime. Trump also promoted the idea of a deploying US missile shields THAAD and Aegis Ashore for Japan and South Korea, but both have known flaws and don't entirely mitigate the risk posed by Kim Jong-un and his regime. [3] This is especially concerning given that on March 6, 2017, North Korea followed up with its second attack under the Trump presidency, firing four missiles into the Sea of Japan, less than 200 miles off of Japan's shores, purportedly in retaliation for US-South Korean joint military drills days before. This subject is projected to remain relevant in coming times, as US officials expect more missile launches in the near future. [4]

© Daniel Berrios. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] R. Gladstone and R. Jacquette, "How the North Korean Nuclear Threat Has Grown," New York Times, 17 Feb 17.

[2] J. D. Pollack, "Kim Jong-il's Clenched Fist," Washington Quarterly 32, No. 4 153 (2009).

[3] "Trump Backs Missile Shield Against North Korea, Pushes Upgrades to Nuclear Arsenal," Japan Times, 24 Feb 17.

[4] L. C. Baldor, "Officials: US Expects Next North Korean Missile Launch Soon," The Washington Post, 21 Mar 17.

[5] "How Potent Are North Korea's Threats?" BBC News, 15 Sep 15.