Nuclear Weapons

U.S. analysts remain concerned about the pace and success of North Korea’s nuclear weapons development. In the past, the U.S. intelligence community has characterized the purpose of North Korean nuclear weapons as intended for “deterrence, international prestige, and coercive diplomacy.”While the United States is in talks with North Korea about abandoning its nuclear weapons program, or “denuclearization,” the intelligence community has expressed skepticism of Pyongyang’s willingness to carry out that goal. In its most recent assessment to Congress, the DNI said in March 2018 that “Pyongyang’s commitment to possessing nuclear weapons and fielding capable long-range missiles, all while repeatedly stating that nuclear weapons are the basis for its survival, suggests that the regime does not intend to negotiate them away.” North Korean Foreign Ministry official Choe Son Hui said in October 2017 that the North Korean nuclear arsenal is meant to deter attack from the United States and that keeping its weapons is “a matter of life and death for us.”


North Korea in public statements has indicated it was building its nuclear force with an emphasis on developing “smaller, lighter, and more diversified” warheads, signaling a move to produce and deploy nuclear weapons. North Korea has tested nuclear explosive devices six times since 2006, including a hydrogen bomb (or two-stage thermonuclear warhead with a higher yield than previously tested devices) in September 2017 that it said it was perfecting for delivery on an intercontinental ballistic missile. According to U.S. and international estimates, each test produced underground blasts that were progressively higher in magnitude and estimated yield. In early 2018, North Korea announced that it had achieved its goals and would no longer conduct nuclear tests and would close down its test site.


However, fissile material production and related facilities have not been shuttered.

The North Korean nuclear program began in the late 1950s with cooperation agreements with the Soviet Union on a nuclear research program near Yongbyon. Its first research reactor began operation in 1967. North Korea used indigenous expertise and foreign procurements to build a small (5MW(e)) nuclear reactor at Yongbyon. It was capable of producing about 6 kilograms (kg) of plutonium per year and began operating in 1986. Later that year, U.S. satellites detected high explosives testing and a new plant to separate plutonium from the reactor’s spent fuel (a chemical reprocessing plant). Over the past two decades, the reactor and reprocessing facility have been alternately operational and frozen under safeguards put in place as the result of the 1994 Agreed Framework and again in 2007, under the Six Party Talks. Since the Six Party Talks’ collapse in 2008, North Korea has restarted its 5MW(e) reactor and its reprocessing plant, has openly built a uranium enrichment plant for an alternative source of weapons material, and is constructing a new experimental light water reactor. It is generally estimated in open sources that North Korea had produced between 30 and 40 kilograms of separated plutonium, enough for at least half a dozen nuclear weapons.

While North Korea’s weapons program was plutonium-based from the start, intelligence emerged in the late 1990s pointing to a second route to a bomb using highly enriched uranium (HEU). North Korea openly acknowledged a uranium enrichment program in 2009, but has said its purpose is the production of fuel for nuclear power.

In November 2010, North Korea showed visiting American experts early construction of a 100 MWT light-water reactor and a newly built gas centrifuge uranium enrichment plant, both at the Yongbyon site. The North Koreans claimed the enrichment plant was operational, but this has not been independently confirmed. U.S. officials have said that it is likely other clandestine enrichment facilities exist. Open-source reports, citing U.S. government sources, in July 2018 identified one such site at Kangson.

It is difficult to estimate warhead and material stockpiles due to lack of transparency and uncertainty about weapons design.

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