What to know about North Korea’s nuclear program
While President Joe Biden has left the door open for discussions on eliminating North Korea's nuclear weapons, leader Kim Jong Un has shown no interest in picking up again. Meanwhile, he has been busy making his arsenal bigger, deadlier and better able to strike South Korea, Japan, American forces in Asia — and the U.S. mainland. His achievements undermine former President Donald Trump's assertion that his unprecedented summits with Kim had ensured North Korea was "no longer a nuclear threat." This year North Korea resumed testing its ballistic missiles and test-fired a new cruise missile.
1. Could Kim really hit the U.S.?
Kim appears to have acquired that capability after successfully testing an intercontinental ballistic missile in November 2017. But one test may not be enough to ensure the reliability of the ICBM known as the Hwasong-15. A new ICBM — displayed at a military parade to mark the 75th anniversary of the ruling Workers' Party in October 2020 — is bigger and likely boasts more powerful engines, weapons experts say. They added that its likely purpose is to deliver a multiple nuclear warhead payload that could overwhelm U.S. defenses, or a high-yield weapon. North Korea can fit miniature warheads onto missiles and fire them, a United Nations report said in 2020. It has also developed weapons that can be moved around more swiftly to evade detection. In early September, it tested new cruise missiles, claiming ranges that could hit almost all of Japan, and showed off what it said was a new delivery system it used to fire short-range ballistic missiles off a train. What's less clear is whether the weapons could beat antimissile systems and survive reentry, or if they're refined enough to strike their intended targets.
2. What about its bombs?
Of North Korea's six atomic tests, Kim was responsible for four. They've come a long way since the first detonation in 2006. That one measured less than one kiloton, leaving experts wondering whether it had been a partial failure. (A kiloton is equal to the force of 1,000 tons of TNT). The most recent, in September 2017, was the most powerful. Its estimated yield of 120-250 kilotons dwarfed the 15-20 kiloton U.S. bombs that destroyed Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945. Experts estimate that North Korea has assembled 30-40 nuclear warheads, the fewest among the nine nations with nuclear weapons.
3. How are North Korea's weapons more nimble?
Kim has rolled out new solid-fuel ballistic missiles that are easier to move, hide and fire than many liquid-fuel versions. He has launched more than two dozen since May 2019 including nuclear-capable, hypersonic KN-23 missiles that can strike all of South Korea — including U.S. forces stationed south of Seoul — within two minutes. He has also launched KN-25 short-range missiles designed to be fired in rapid succession from a single launcher to overwhelm interceptors. The new ballistic Pukguksong-3 missile — the biggest of the bunch — is designed to be fired from a submarine and has an estimated range of 1,900 kilometers (1,200 miles). At last year's parade, it rolled out an even more advanced version, which likely has a greater range and payload capacity. Weapons experts say North Korea is also developing an ICBM that uses solid-propellant technology, potentially giving the U.S. less warning ahead of any strike aimed at the mainland.
4. Where does Kim's military get its fissile material?
It has been self-sufficient for decades. The program, which once turned out enough plutonium for about one nuclear bomb a year, now relies largely on uranium enrichment and, according to weapons experts, produces enough fissile material annually for about six bombs. The Trump administration said North Korea enlarged its stockpile even after nuclear talks began. Experts estimate the country as of 2018 had enough for roughly 30-60 nuclear weapons. North Korea appears to have resumed plutonium-producing operations at a nuclear reactor in its antiquated Yongbyon complex in mid-2021.
5. What other surprises might be out there?
North Korea may be working on ICBMs that carry multiple warheads and in-flight countermeasures to throw interceptors off the trail, according to Datayo, an open-source weapons research site. Kim has pushed to develop his fleet of submarines and is looking to deploy a new vessel soon that experts say could fire missiles. He may even try to revive the country's satellite program, arguing that North Korea has the right as a sovereign state to develop a space program. Weapons experts say satellite launches could be used by North Korea to advance missile technology.
6. How big are North Korea's conventional forces?
Despite being among the world's poorest countries, North Korea has one of the largest militaries. Of its nearly 26 million people, more than 1 million are in active service, according to the CIA World Factbook. On top of that, more than 6 million are considered reserve soldiers. The military has thousands of pieces of artillery trained on the Seoul area and hundreds of missiles that can strike South Korea and Japan.
7. How can the country afford all this?
The money needed is not huge in global terms. North Korea spent around $4 billion annually on its military between 2007 and 2017, according to a 2019 CIA assessment — roughly equivalent to two days' U.S. military spending. As a share of its economy, though, the outlay ranks among the highest globally, if not the most. Although international sanctions have hit the economy hard, North Korea is evading some through means such as clandestine, high-seas transfers of banned goods such as oil, and generating enough cash to keep its nuclear program moving through methods that include ransomware attacks.
8. Wasn't Trump going to fix this?
Trump's talks with Kim, beginning with Singapore in June 2018, turned the duo from insult-throwing enemies into dialogue partners. But their three meetings didn't produce any noticeable change, and North Korea has become what three decades of diplomacy had tried to prevent — a state capable of developing, projecting and detonating atomic bombs. Tensions continue to yo-yo.