What Are North Korea's Nuclear Capabilities?

Joshua Kim
March 26, 2021

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2021


Fig. 1: Missile being unveiled during parade in Pyongyang. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

For a country that boasts the world's fourth largest military, it comes as a surprise that many of North Korea's citizens live below the poverty line. Roughly 60% of the country's population live below the poverty line. [1] This estimate was calculated using night-time luminosity data by a group of researchers who concluded that the GDP-per capita was quite low (about $790 per capita). [1] Their estimates were compatible with previous studies that considered features such as age structure, sectoral employment and education. However, according to estimates by the U.S. State Department, North Korea spends nearly a quarter of its gross domestic product on its military. This seeming disconnect between the government's priorities and its commitment to vulnerable populations highlights the degree to which North Korea values and even prides itself on its military prowess. [2] Although the constitutional history of North Korea can be revised at anytime (e.g., when the country's leader decides to change the State's political direction), the country's current constitution prioritizes national defense over the wishes of its citizens.

North Korea's Nuclear Stockpile

Fig. 1 shows an ICBM being unveiled at a military parade in 2013.

North Korea has tested a number of different missiles, including short, medium and intercontinental- range (ICBM) and submarine-launched ballistic missiles. Although the exact size of their arsenal is unknown, U.S. intelligence experts estimate that in 2018, North Korea had enough fissile material for 65 weapons. [3] Furthermore, they found that annually, the country produces enough of this material to create another twelve weapons. In November 2017, North Korea tested the Hwasong-15 ICBM, which analysts estimate has the potential to travel a distance of 8,100 miles and could potentially reach the United States. More recently, in October 2020, North Korea unveiled a new intercontinental ballistic missile that was displayed on an eleven-axel vehicle. U.S. intelligence officials released a report in July 2017 that concluded North Korea not only possessed the technology to shrink a nuclear warhead to be able to fit its ICBMs, but also could produce bombs with weapons-grade uranium or plutonium.

In the past two decades, North Korea has conducted numerous tests to detonate their nuclear weapons. In 2006, they used a plutonium-fueled atomic bomb that was equivalent to two kilotons of TNT. [4] Later in 2009 and 2013, their bombs produced a yield of eight and roughly 17 kilotons, respectively. With each successive test, the North's explosions have grown exponentially in power. In September 2016, their test had a yield of 35 kilotons, which is over double the yield of the first atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945 (approximately 16 kilotons). About a year later, in their most recent test, U.S. officials using seismic activity to conclude that the explosion had a yield greater than two hundred kilotons, which gave credence to North Korea's claims in having successfully produced a hydrogen bomb. [5]

Sanctions Against the North

After North Korea withdrew from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) in 2003, the United Nations Security Council unanimously voted to implement sanctions against the North. In an effort to curb North Korea's nuclear weapons testing and development, and return stability into the Korean Peninsula, the Security Council banned the sale of weapons and any materials and technology that could be used to produce weapons to North Korea. Other measures included restrictions on foreign trade and additional inspections of exports to North Korea. [6] Nevertheless, the North has continued to trade nuclear-related technology and instructions between countries including Egypt, Iran, Yemen, Libya, Syria, Vietnam and the United Arab Emirates. These sanctions may exacerbate the North's volatile behavior as the country may ramp up their selling of nuclear technology to prop up their economy and consequently increase the risks for nuclear terrorism.

Reasons for North Korea's Militarization

The principles that have guided North Korea are juche (self-reliance) and songun (military-first politics). [7] The military plays center stage in political affairs and has grown steadily over the years through increased government spending. The reason for this seeming contradiction between prioritizing military and upholding citizen wellbeing is the fear that hostile forces such as the United States and South Korea could attack at any moment. Therefore, in the eyes of North Korea, developing military prowess is the only way to guarantee national survival.

© Joshua Kim. The author warrants that the work is the author's own and that Stanford University provided no input other than typesetting and referencing guidelines. 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] J. C. Cuaresma et al, "What Do We Know About Poverty in North Korea?, Palgrave Commun. 6, 40 (2020).

[2] D.-K. Yoon, "The Constitution of North Korea: Its Changes and Implications," Fordham Intl. L. J. 27, 1289 (2003).

[3] S. A. Squassoni, "North Korea's Nuclear Weapons: How Soon an Arsenal?," Congressional Research Service, RS21391, May 2005.

[4] "North Korea: A Chronology of Events from 2016 to 2020," Congressional Research Service, R46349,May 2020.

[5] S. J. Gibbons et al. "Accurate Relative Location Estimates for the North Korean Nuclear Tests Using Empirical Slowness Corrections," Geophys. J. Int. 208, 101 (2017).

[6] "North Korea: Legislative Basis for U.S. Economic Sanctions," Congressional Research Service, R41438, March 2020.

[7] H. S. Park, "Military-First Politics (Songun): Understanding Kim Jong-ils North Korea," Korea Economic Institute, September 2007.