Politics

How Large Is North Korea’s Nuclear Arsenal?

Kim Jong-un’s government continues to work on its nuclear program, a major source of tension in Asia.

The secretive nation has previously ruled out an Iran-style deal to shut down its nuclear program, apparently concluding that it has more to gain from developing more nuclear warheads and longer-range missiles. The recent announcement that the country’s main nuclear facility is once more operating normally has led to renewed focus on Pyongyang, writes John Power for The Diplomat.

How Large Is North Korea's Nuclear Arsenal?

Official announcement that plutonium reactor is back online

State media announced the news on Tuesday, confirming that the facility’s plutonium reactor is now back online. The report from the Korean Central News Agency is corroborated by satellite imagery seen by the Institute for Science and International Security, which claimed that the reactor was functioning again in April.

International denuclearization talks led to the shutting down of the Yongbyon nuclear complex in 2007. A group of nations including the United States, China, Russia, South Korea and Japan brought North Korea to the negotiating table in an attempt to improve regional security.

Talks ultimately failed, and Pyongyang reiterated its commitment to its nuclear program. In 2013 a period of increased tensions with South Korea led North Korean officials to declare that Yongbyon would be brought back online.

North Korea makes regular threats about nuclear strikes

North Korea is known for its aggressive rhetoric, and Tuesday’s statement was no different. The head of the atomic energy agency threatened the use of nuclear weapons at “any time” against the U.S., which he blamed for engaging in “reckless hostile policy.”

For a long time, North Korea watchers were unsure whether Pyongyang had nuclear weapons. That question was answered by the country’s first nuclear test in 2006, but doubts remain to this day over how many warheads the Kim regime currently possesses.

Opinions vary widely, with unnamed Chinese experts cited by The Wall Street Journal claiming in April that North Korea may have as many as 20 warheads. In contrast the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University believes Pyongyang has between 10-16 devices.

According to Jeffrey Lewis, founder of Arms Control Wonk.com, a dozen warheads is a likely number. “I just estimate based on the amount of plutonium — call it a dozen weapons with a fair amount of uncertainty,” he said.

Pyongyang could have more weapons-grade material than previously thought

However it should be pointed out that Lewis’ estimate does not include the uranium enrichment program that Pyongyang also maintains. He describes it as a “major unknown.”

Experts say that uranium enrichment facilities are easier to hide than their plutonium equivalents. Precise estimates of North Korea’s nuclear capabilities are impossible due to highly restricted access to the country and the lack of knowledge of its technical know-how.

Nuclear expert Siegfried Hecker, who has visited Yongbyon on several occasions, spoke out on the issue in April.

“Developing these estimates is not an exact science,” he told the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University. “There are huge uncertainties in estimating the enrichment capacity that is likely present at covert sites. One particular problem is the difficulty in assessing how much indigenous capacity North Korea has to make the key materials and components for centrifuges.”

Can North Korea be tempted to give up its nuclear program?

Should North Korea be able to continue work on its missile programs, its existing stockpile of nuclear devices would be able to strike targets further afield. Pyongyang already has missiles capable of striking any point in South Korea, and experts believe that it may not be too far away from developing a missile that can hit Japan.

Kim Jong-un continues to invest heavily in the program, to the detriment of the North Korean economy. The signing of the recent nuclear deal with Iran raised hopes that a similar deal could be reached with North Korea, but that appears to be impossible.

The situation of the two countries is very different given Iran’s oilfields and large consumer market, whereas North Korea does not have as much to gain from reentering the world economy. The fact remains that North Korea has invested a greater proportion of its economic output in nuclear weapons than Iran did, making the program harder to give up.

While the Kim regime may be one of the longest-surviving dictatorships of recent history, officials are still terrified of losing power. The threat of nuclear strikes at times appears to be the regime’s only chip in negotiations with the outside world, and as such it is difficult to envision a voluntary agreement to give them up.