The Relationship Between North and South Korea – Part 1 – North Korea’s Nuclear Program

North Korea's Nuclear Program

This article was last updated on May 4, 2023

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The Relationship Between North and South Korea – Part 1 – North Korea’s Nuclear Program

With this in mind:



North Korea's Nuclear Program

and, these sentences in particular:


President Biden highlighted the U.S. commitment to extend deterrence to the ROK is backed by the full range of U.S. capabilities, including nuclear. Going forward, the United States will further enhance the regular visibility of strategic assets to the Korean Peninsula, as evidenced by the upcoming visit of a U.S. nuclear ballistic missile submarine to the ROK, and will expand and deepen coordination between our militaries.


…I’d like to take a look at recent developments on the Korean Peninsula.  In this two part posting, we’ll look at an update to North Korea’s nuclear program and South Korea’s response to what they view as an existential threat even though the nation’s current leadership claims that they will not pursue their own nuclear arms program.


Thanks to the nonprofit, nonpartisan global security organization, the Nuclear Threat Initiative or NTI, we can track North Korea’s missile tests in a database which records all flight tests of missiles launched by the DPRK which are capable of carrying and delivering a payload of at least 500 kilograms or 1102 pounds a distance of at least 300 kilometres or 186 miles going back to the first test in April 1984.


Here is a map showing the launch sites of all of the missile tests that fall within those parameters going back to 1984:


North Korea's Nuclear Program

To date, there have been 226 tests with the latest recorded test taking place on December 30, 2022.The most launches (26) have taken place on the Hodo Peninsula launch site followed by 20 at the Kittaeryong Missile Base and 16 at the Pyongyang International Airport.


Here is a graphic showing the launch test results from 1991 to the present broken down by success or failure:


North Korea's Nuclear Program

According to NTI, North Korea has an estimated 40 to 50 nuclear warheads in its stockpile and an estimated 25 to 48 kilograms of plutonium and 600 to 950 kilograms of highly-enriched uranium in its inventory (estimates are uncertain).  The highest yield nuclear test was between 100 and 370 kilotons and took place in September 2017.  The nation announced a self-imposed nuclear testing moratorium in 2018. It has the following ballistic missiles with nuclear potential in its inventory:


1.) Intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs): Hwasong-14, Hwasong-15, Hwasong-16, Taepodong-2


2.) Intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs): Hwasong-10, Hwasong-12


3.) Medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBMs): Pukguksong-2, Hwasong-7, Hwasong-9


4.) Submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs): Pukguksong-3, Pukguksong-4, Pukguksong-5 


North Korea also claims that it has cruise missiles that have the capability to deliver nuclear warheads.  

Here is a graphic showing the types of missiles launched over the entire timeframe of North Korea’s missile program noting that the majority of the missiles launched in 2022 are of the “unknown” type:



North Korea's Nuclear Program

It appears that 2022 was a very successful year and by far the most busy year for North Korea’s missile program with a total of 42 successful and 5 failures out of 69 total launches with 32 having unknown results.  This compares to 27 launches in 2019, the second busiest year on record.  Here is a graphic showing the launch sites for 2022:


Here is a graphic showing a detailed breakdown of missiles launched in 2022:


North Korea's Nuclear Program

I hope that this information has provided you with sufficient background to understand how North Korea has taken steps to both ensure that it is protected from attacks by external forces and how it could ultimately threaten the United States itself with its intercontinental ballistic missiles.  The possession of nuclear weapon capability also provides Pyongyang with international prestige and allows it to undertake coercive diplomacy, putting it on par with Washington’s “diplomatic model”.  The Biden Administration’s recent announcement will play right into North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s concerns that his nation is under an existential threat from both the south and far east.


In part 2 of this posting, we will examine how South Koreans feel about North Korea’s nuclear program and how they want their government to respond.

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