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Despite having conducted several nuclear tests, and demonstrated its missile capabilities, North Korea is not officially recognised by the international community as a nuclear weapons state.

It is, however, acknowledged as nuclear capable and since 2011 North Korea’s nuclear programme has accelerated.

North Korea’s evolving nuclear capabilities

In summary:

  • Since 2006 North Korea has conducted six nuclear tests, the most recent in September 2017.
  • Opinions are divided on the size of its stockpile. SIPRI’s most recent estimate places the number of assembled warheads at 20. Previous estimates suggested North Korea has the capacity to build between  40 and 50 warheads, based on its stocks of fissile material.
  • It continues to produce fissile material for weapons purposes.
  • In July 2017 North Korea successfully tested, for the first time, an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM) technically capable of striking the United States. Despite the imposition of UN Security Council resolutions prohibiting the development and testing of ballistic missiles/ ICBM, North Korea has continued its ICBM programme. In early 2022 North Korea abandoned its self-declared moratorium on nuclear and ICBM testing and conducted an ICBM test in March 2022.
  • North Korea is thought to have achieved miniaturisation of a nuclear warhead, a technological threshold in the attainment of a credible ICBM nuclear capability.
  • North Korea’s nuclear doctrine appears to be shifting from one based solely on deterrence, to a posture that embraces the concept of pre-emptive first strikes.

Since September 2021 North Korea has been conducting an accelerated campaign of missile testing. At the time of writing, North Korea has conducted 16 missile tests since the beginning of 2022, in contravention of UN Security Council resolutions. There are also indications that North Korea may be preparing to conduct a seventh nuclear test.

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