Report to Congress on North Korea’s Nuclear Weapons and Missile Programs

July 25, 2023 7:32 AM

The following is the July 21, 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.

U.S. policy as well as U.N. resolutions call on North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons and missile programs. Kim Jong Un has repeatedly rejected “denuclearization” talks. According to the U.S. intelligence community’s 2023 annual threat assessment (ATA), North Korean leader Kim Jong-un views nuclear weapons and intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) as “the ultimate guarantor of his autocratic rule and has no intention of abandoning those programs, believing that over time he will gain international acceptance as a nuclear power.”

The Korea People’s Assembly adopted a new law in September 2022 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.

In response to these developments, the United States and South Korea have conducted joint military drills and revived the bilateral Extended Deterrence Strategy and Consultation Group. 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.” Congress may choose to examine U.S. policy toward North Korea.

Nuclear Testing

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. International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) reports say North Korea began restoring test tunnels in March 2022 and the test site “remains prepared to support a nuclear test.”

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. In March 2023, the IAEA reported construction and operations at the Yongbyon uranium centrifuge enrichment plant, Radiochemical Laboratory plant and Experimental Light Water 5MW(e) Reactor. 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.

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