The security challenges posed by the combination of North Korea’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles remain significant. Recent years have seen North Korea make significant strides in its development of more capable ballistic missiles, and the DPRK is now estimated to have as many as eight intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) capable of striking the continental United States. In addition, North Korea has continued to unveil new variants of its Pukguksong-series of submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) and reportedly has completed construction of a new ballistic missile submarine, and has also developed an arsenal of advanced short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs) that appear to be capable of challenging ballistic missile defenses deployed in South Korea.
Making definitive statements about the current state of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal based on open-source information is difficult, but enough information is available to allow for estimates of an arsenal that stands at somewhere between 20 and 60. That estimate does not mean that North Korea currently has as many as 60 nuclear weapons at its disposal, but rather that the DPRK has stockpiled enough fissile material to produce that many; North Korea’s inventory of assembled nuclear warheads is likely lower. North Korea’s nuclear arsenal could grow substantially in the coming years, and the country is likely to continue to pursue capabilities that improve both the versatility and the effectiveness of its nuclear weapons.
In its recently released annual report on armaments, disarmament, and international security, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute finds that North Korea has continued to develop its nuclear arsenal even as the country has refrained from conducting further nuclear or long-range missile testing. According to the report, North Korea is now believed to be in possession of between 40 and 50 nuclear weapons, an increase from last year’s estimate of 30 to 40 weapons.
SIPRI has based its estimates of North Korea’s nuclear inventory on the number of weapons that the DPRK could build with the fissile material that it has available to it. The report also notes that there is no available evidence suggesting that North Korea has produced a nuclear weapon for use on an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), though North Korea may have smaller warheads for use on medium-range ballistic missiles (MRBMs) available.
SIPRI cautions that its estimates of North Korea’s nuclear weapons are “highly uncertain,” and does not include the country’s warheads in the report’s larger tally of global nuclear weapons.
Other experts have recently weighed in on the size of North Korea’s nuclear weapons arsenal with Dr. Siegfried Hecker – a noted nuclear weapons expert with extensive experience studying North Korea’s nuclear weapons program – estimating that the DPRK has somewhere between 20 and 60 nuclear weapons, with the most likely number being around 45. Like the SIPRI report, Dr. Hecker’s estimate is based on the number of weapons that North Korea could produce with its current stockpile of fissile material, as opposed to an estimate of the number of warheads that North Korea currently possesses.
Regarding the DPRK’s current inventory of assembled nuclear warheads, a likely figure is somewhere in the range of 10-20 weapons deliverable by MRBMs.
North Korea’s nuclear weapons arsenal is likely to continue to expand in the coming years. According to a recent RAND Corporation report, the DPRK’s nuclear weapons arsenal could grow to as much as 151 to 242 nuclear weapons by 2027. This is likely on the high end of estimates, with other experts – including Dr. Hecker – suggesting that the arsenal may only grow by as many as six weapons per year as opposed to the 12 to 18 predicted by the RAND report.
Along with continuing to expand its arsenal, North Korea is also likely to continue to pursue capabilities that improve both the versatility and the effectiveness of its nuclear weapons. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un has outlined a list of objectives related to the continued development of the country’s strategic weapons capability including the development of a “super-large hydrogen bomb,” and has also identified the development of tactical nuclear weapons as a priority. North Korea in March tested a short-range ballistic missile that analysts have suggested could be a viable candidate for mounting tactical nuclear weapons.
In addition, while North Korea has not clearly demonstrated its ability to make use of a reliable re-entry vehicle, the U.S. intelligence community has assessed that the DPRK does possess the capability to equip its long-range missiles with reentry vehicles that will allow them to credibly threaten the U.S. mainland. North Korea is likely to continue to develop reentry capabilities, including through the pursuit of multiple reentry vehicles which could substantially increase the ability of North Korean missiles to defeat U.S. missile defenses.
While it is difficult to fully assess North Korea’s current nuclear arsenal, enough information is available to conclude that the combination of the DPRK’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile arsenals represents a significant security challenge, one that is likely to continue to intensify in coming years.