The following is the Jan. 23, 2023 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 2022 annual threat assessment, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un views nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) as “the ultimate guarantor of his totalitarian and autocratic rule of North Korea and believes that over time he will gain international acceptance as a nuclear power.”
United States policy as well as United Nations resolutions call on North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons. In a September 9, 2022, speech to North Korea’s Supreme People’s Assembly, Kim Jong Un rejected denuclearization talks and vowed the country would continue developing its “nuclear power.” The Assembly adopted a new law that reportedly expands the conditions under which North Korea would use nuclear weapons to include possible first use in situations that threaten the regime’s survival. The Biden Administration’s 2022 Nuclear Posture Review said, “Any nuclear attack by North Korea against the United States or its Allies and partners is unacceptable and will result in the end of that regime.”
North Korea 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 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 did not occur. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reports say North Korea began restoring test tunnels in March 2022.
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. A March 2022 IAEA report says that there were no indications of operations at its Radiochemical Laboratory (reprocessing) plant since its last reprocessing campaign from February to July 2021. The IAEA notes ongoing operation of the Yongbyon Experimental Light Water 5MW(e) Reactor since July 2021. Spent fuel from that reactor is reprocessed at the Radiochemical Laboratory to extract plutonium for weapons. In September 2022, the IAEA reported ongoing uranium mining, milling, and concentration activities at Pyongsan. Fissile material production in large part determines the number and type of nuclear warheads a country is able to build.
Outside experts estimate that North Korea has produced enough fissile material for between 20 to 60 warheads. A 2021 U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) report says that North Korea “retains a stockpile of nuclear weapons.” Another goal of a nuclear weapons program is to lower the size and weight of a nuclear warhead for deployment on missiles. A July 2017 DIA assessment and some outside observers asserted North Korea had achieved the level of miniaturization required to fit a nuclear device on weapons ranging from short-range ballistic missiles (SRBM) to intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM). Kim Jong-un in January 2021 said that the country was able to “miniaturize, lighten and standardize nuclear weapons and to make them tactical ones.”
North Korea conducted an unprecedented 63 ballistic missile test launches in 2022 according to U.S. government officials. U.N. Security Council (UNSC) resolutions prohibit North Korea’s development of the means of delivering conventional and nuclear payloads, in addition to the nuclear weapons themselves. UNSC resolutions specifically ban “all ballistic missile tests” by North Korea. A ballistic missile is a projectile powered by a rocket engine until it reaches the apogee of its trajectory, at which point it falls back to earth using earth’s gravity. Ballistic missiles can deliver nuclear and large conventional payloads at high speed and over great distances. They are categorized as short-range, medium-range, or long-range (intercontinental) based on the distance from the launch site to the target.
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