North Korea’s ThreatNorth Korea’s Military Capabilities

Published 6 July 2022

North Korea could have the material for more than one hundred nuclear weapons, according to analysts’ estimates. It has successfully tested missiles that could strike the United States with a nuclear warhead. North Korea has the world’s fourth-largest military, with more than 1.2 million personnel, and is believed to possess chemical and biological weapons. Despite UN Security Council sanctions and past summits involving North Korea, South Korea, and the United States on denuclearization, Pyongyang continues to test ballistic missiles.

The United States and its Asian allies see North Korea as a grave security threat. North Korea has one of the world’s largest conventional military forces, which, combined with its missile and nuclear tests and aggressive rhetoric, has aroused concern worldwide. But world powers have been ineffective in slowing its path to acquire nuclear weapons.

While it remains among the poorest countries in the world, North Korea spends nearly a quarter of its gross domestic product (GDP) on its military, according to U.S. State Department estimates. Its brinkmanship will continue to test regional and international partnerships aimed at preserving stability and security. Negotiations on denuclearization have remained stalled since February 2019.

What Are North Korea’s Nuclear Capabilities?
The exact size and strength of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal are unclear. However, analysts say Pyongyang has tested nuclear weapons six times and developed ballistic missiles capable of reaching the United States and its allies Japan and South Korea.

The North Korean regime possesses the know-how to produce nuclear bombs with weapons-grade uranium or plutonium, the primary elements required for making fissile material. U.S. intelligence officials estimated in 2017 that North Korea had enough fissile material—the core component of nuclear weapons—for up to sixty weapons, and that every year it produces enough fissile material for twelve additional weapons. At that rate, in 2022, North Korea could have enough fissile material for more than one hundred nuclear weapons. Indeed, a 2021 RAND Corporation report projected that North Korea could have around two hundred nuclear weapons stockpiled by 2027. Some experts believe the current stockpile of fissile material to be smaller; the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’ Hans M. Kristensen and Matt Korda estimated in 2021 that Pyongyang had enough material for forty to fifty nuclear weapons.

North Korea has conducted six nuclear tests, first in October 2006 and then in May 2009 under former Supreme Leader Kim Jong-il. Under Kim Jong-un, Kim Jong-il’s son who assumed power in late 2011, the nuclear program markedly accelerated. Kim has directed four nuclear tests—in February 2013, January and September 2016, and September 2017—and 160 missile tests, far exceeding the number of trials conducted under his father and grandfather, North Korea’s founder, Kim Il-sung.