Report on North Korea’s Nuclear Weapons, Missile Programs

December 16, 2021 9:33 AM

The following is the Dec. 13, 2021, Congressional Research Service In Focus report, North Korea’s Nuclear Weapons and Missile Programs.

From the report

North Korea continues to advance its nuclear weapons and missile programs despite UN Security Council sanctions and high-level diplomatic efforts. Recent ballistic missile tests and military parades suggest that North Korea is continuing to build a nuclear warfighting capability designed to evade regional ballistic missile defenses. Such an approach likely reinforces a deterrence and coercive diplomacy strategy—lending more credibility as it demonstrates capability—but it also raises questions about crisis stability and escalation control. Congress may choose to examine U.S. policy in light of these advances.

According to the U.S. intelligence community’s 2021 annual threat assessment, North Korean leaders view nuclear weapons as “the ultimate deterrent against foreign intervention.” At the January 2021 North Korean Workers’ Party Conference, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un hailed the “status of our state as a nuclear weapons state” and praised its “powerful and reliable strategic deterrent.” Kim Jong-un has said that “nuclear weapons of the DPRK can be used only by a final order of the Supreme Commander of the Korean People’s Army [Kim Jong-un] to repel invasion or attack from a hostile nuclear weapons state and make retaliatory strikes.”

Nuclear Testing 

North Korea is observing a self-imposed moratorium on nuclear and long-range missile testing. It has tested a nuclear explosive device six times since 2006. Each test produced underground blasts progressively higher in magnitude and estimated yield. North Korea conducted its most recent test on September 3, 2017. A North Korean press release stated it had tested a hydrogen bomb (or two-stage thermonuclear warhead) that it was perfecting for delivery on an intercontinental ballistic missile.

In April 2018, North Korea announced that it had achieved its goals, would no longer conduct nuclear tests, and would close down its Punggye-ri nuclear test site. It dynamited the entrances to two test tunnels in May 2018 prior to the first Trump-Kim summit in front of a group of journalists. In an October 2018 meeting with then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Kim Jong-un “invited inspectors to visit the [test site] to confirm that it has been irreversibly dismantled,” but this has not yet occurred.

Nuclear Material Production 

North Korea reportedly continues to produce fissile material (plutonium and highly enriched uranium) for weapons. North Korea restarted its plutonium production facilities after it withdrew from a nuclear agreement in 2009, and is operating centrifuge uranium enrichment plants at the Yongbyon nuclear complex and possibly at Kangson. An August 2021 International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report says that North Korea was operating its Radiochemical Laboratory (reprocessing) plant and its Yongbyon Experimental Light Water 5MW(e) Reactor. Spent fuel from this reactor has been reprocessed in the past to extract plutonium for weapons. During the September 2018 North-South Korea Pyongyang Summit, the North stated it would “permanently disable” the Yongbyon facilities if the United States took “corresponding measures.”

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