New Delhi: American President Joe Biden and South Korea’s new President Yoon Suk-yeol met for the first time in Seoul Saturday. The meeting took place in the backdrop of intelligence reports indicating North Korea’s intentions to imminently conduct a nuclear test.
North Korea hasn’t tested nuclear weapons since 2017. However, over the past few months, the spectre of nuclear rhetoric has risen considerably over the Korean peninsula.
On 16 April, in the presence of Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un, North Korea reportedly tested a new tactical guided weapon with the aim of enhancing its nuclear targeting capabilities. The test is being seen as a prelude to Pyongyang restarting nuclear weapons testing.
Earlier in March, the BBC had reported that satellite images indicated Pyongyang had restarted construction at a closed nuclear testing site in Punggye-ri.
In the same month, North Korea also tested a banned Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM). The March test was conducted after a flurry of smaller tests. While North Korea had claimed that they were tests for a satellite system, the United States (US) and South Korea believe it was testing parts of the ICBM.
North Korea’s history with nuclear weapons epitomises the security dilemmas of the Korean peninsula after World War II, the lineages of the Korean War, and the Cold War.
While there has been a relative cold peace in the peninsula since 2017, with the new hardliner President Yoon Suk-yeol now in power in Seoul, a catastrophic Covid surge in North Korea, and the Kim Jong Un family keen to maintain their hegemony, the nuclear weapons issue is once again in the limelight.
Nuclear programme & its centrality to ruling elite’s authority
The origins of North Korea’s nuclear programme can be traced to the 1950-53 Korean War. As scholar Bennet Ramberg explains in the journal Survival, American threats to use atomic bombs to end the Korean War made Pyongyang start thinking about having its own nuclear weapons.
North Korea’s desire to seek the bomb escalated during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. Seeing the world on the brink of a nuclear Armageddon, then president Kim Il-sung assumed that ‘juche’, or self-reliance, was the only way forward, and central to this reliance was the nuke.
While varied semblances of a nuclear programme began in the country in the 1960s, after the Kremlin exported a nuclear reactor to North Korea, a concerted effort only took off in the 1980s.
Since the 1980s, Pyongyang has made radical advancements in its nuclear programme and the indigenisation of nuclear manufacturing. North Korea can now produce fissile material, extract plutonium from its own reactors, and also enrich uranium.
According to James Acton, co-director of the Nuclear Policy Programme of Washington-based think-tank Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, the motivations behind North Korea’s pursuit of establishing a nuclear arsenal have varied over time, but a central theme has been the idea of “existential threats” to the regime.
These threats have been attributed to external powers and internal fissures. As political scientist Mark Fitzpatrick explains in Survival, the ruling elite view the nuclear bomb as critical to maintaining their authority and power. For Pyongyang, the nuke is the fulcrum which offsets any threats of regime change — exogenous and internal.
Treaties, agreements & violations
A corollary of North Korea’s nuclear programme has been multiple agreements between North Korea, the US and South Korea on arms reduction, test bans, and non-proliferation agreements. However, these have been violated over the years.
In 1985, North Korea had ratified the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). In 1991, the United States agreed to remove its nuclear weapons from South Korea as part of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START).
In 1992, the governments of both North and South Korea agreed to de-nuclearise the peninsula.
Through the Agreed Framework in 1994 with the US, North Korea agreed to stop freezing its illicit plutonium weapons programme and halt the construction of nuclear reactors. In 1999, it agreed to impose a moratorium on testing long-range missiles after talks with the US.
Nuclear programme ‘steams’ ahead
However, the turn of the 21st century brought to nought much of the progress made by these agreements and treaties. As the International Atomic Energy Agency, the nuclear watchdog of the United Nations noted, “North Korea’s nuclear programme steams ahead”.
Between 2002 and 2003, North Korea quit the NPT after it reportedly emerged that it was still running a uranium enrichment programme, a clear violation of agreements with the US and South Korea.
In 2006, three years after the Six Party Talks — a series of talks aimed at finding a peaceful resolution to security concerns triggered by the North Korean nuclear weapons programme, attended by China, Japan, North Korea, Russia, South Korea, and the United States — began, North Korea shocked the world by conducting its first underground nuclear test.
Reflecting the scale of its nuclear prowess, North Korea declared in 2008 that it had 15 sites where nuclear weapons were stored. Further, it was revealed that a uranium enrichment plant had been built, and a new reactor facility was under construction in 2010.
After Kim Jong-un took up the reins of North Korea in 2011, the country’s nuclear programme advanced despite isolation and sanctions.
Between 2013 and 2017, North Korea conducted nuclear tests four times — in February 2013, in January and September 2016, and in September 2017. Even its ballistic missile capabilities improved, with 125 tests of short, medium, and long-range missiles reportedly conducted during this time.
North Korea’s nuclear balance
The exact capacity of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal is unknown. However, certain estimates exist regarding its missile inventory, uranium and plutonium production capacity and warheads.
According to the Council on Foreign Relations, an American think-tank specialising in US foreign policy and international relations, North Korea could have assembled between twenty to sixty nuclear weapons by 2020.
The RAND Corporation, another American think tank, in a recent policy issue ‘Countering the risks of North Korean nuclear weapons’ estimated that North Korea could have 100 nuclear warheads by 2020.
Furthermore, North Korea boasts a diverse set of missile systems that can be used to deliver its nuclear weapons and warheads.
According to Washington-based think-tank Center for Strategic and International Studies’ (CSIS) ‘Missile Defence Project’, North Korea’s missile arsenal includes Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM), Intermediate-Range Missiles (IRBM), Medium-Range Ballistic Missiles (MRBM), Short-Range Ballistic Missiles (SRBM). According to a BBC report, they even have hypersonic missiles.
The CSIS categorises the Hwasong-5, Hwasong-6, KN-02 (Toksa), KN-18 (Scud-MaRV), and KN-23 and -25 as Pyongyang’s short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs). The Hwasong-6 can travel up to 500 km, the most in this category. The rest range between 120 and 450 km.
The Hwasong-7, Hwasong-9, and Pukguksong-2 (KN-15) are North Korea’s medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBMs). The Hwasong-7 and Pukguksong-2 (KN-15) range between 1,200 and 2,000 km, while the Hwasong-9 can travel upto 800-1,000 km.
Further, two intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBM) are under development — the BM-25 Musudan and the Hwasong-12. The BM-25 has a range of between 2,500-4,000 km, while the Hwasong-12’s range is 4,500 km.
Three intercontinental-range ballistic missiles (ICBMs) are included in the DPRK’s missile inventory, according to CSIS. The Hwasong-15 is in development with an estimated range of 8,500-13,000 km.
The Hwasong-14 is operational with a range of 10,400 km. There is also the Hwasong-13, with a 5,500-11,500 km range, which has never been deployed.
Uranium & Plutonium
Uncertainty exists regarding the uranium and plutonium inventories of North Korea since they are shrouded in mystery and secrecy.
However, the RAND Corporation estimates the nation had 30-63 kg of plutonium by 2019. This figure could have increased by 2022.
According to a November 2021 Reuters report, North Korea can easily enhance its uranium producing capacity, arguing that Pyongyang has substantially higher milling capacity than it has used. “North Korea can get all the uranium it needs for nuclear weapons,” stated the report.
Concrete figures on its highly enriched uranium (HEU) stockpile vary, placing it between 300-450 kg with an annual production rate of 150 kg.
(Edited by Gitanjali Das)