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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

Stockpile Estimates

The DPRK proved its nuclear weapons capability with a successfull underground nuclear detonation on 9 October 2006. The size of the North Korean stockpile, however, is still widely unkown. According to various sources of information, North Korea seemed to have reprocessed enough plutonium to produce one or two nuclear weapons. In addition, sufficient plutonium for another six nuclear weapons remained in fuel removed from the reactor at Yongbon but stored under international supervision, under the provisions of the 1994 Agreed Framework.

Publicly available evidence does not permit an assessment of the extent of the uranium program, and there is a considerable range of uncertainty. It is generally agreed that North Korea has attempted to acquire technology related to uranium enrichment from sources in several countries, including China, Russia and Pakistan. It is also generally agreed that, compared to the plutonium program, the precise status of the uranium program would be difficult to assess using sources such as satellite imagery. In contrast to the large and distinctive plutonium production reactors, a uranium enrichment program could be dispersed and hidden underground.

As of February 2005 Defense Intelligence Agency analysts were reported to believe that North Korea may already have produced as many as 12 to 15 nuclear weapons. This would imply that by the end of 2004 North Korea had produced somewhere between four and eight uranium bombs [on top of the seven or eight plutonium bombs already on hand]. The DIA's estimate was at the high end of an intelligence community-wide assessment of North Korea's nuclear arsenal completed in early 2005. The CIA lowballed the estimate at two to three bombs, which would suggest an assessment that the DPRK either had not reprocessed a significant amount of plutonium from the 8,000 spent fuel rods removed from storage in early 2003, or had not fabricated a significant number of weapons from whatever amount of plutonium had been reprocessed. The Department of Energy's analysis put North Korea's stockpile somewhere in between, which would be consistent with the roughly 7 or 8 plutonium bombs that could be produced from all existing plutonium stocks, with no uranium bombs.

If one assumes that the DPRK produced sufficient plutonium for eight bombs, and expended one of these bombs in a test in Pakistan in 1998, then as of 2005 their plutonium bomb inventory would be seven weapons. Taking the mid-point of the DIA's estimate of between four and eight uranium bombs, the plausible uranium bomb stockpile as of early 2005 would be six weapons, increasing at a rate of one bomb every two months. Thus the early 2005 stockpile would be 13 weapons, growing to about 20 weapons by the end of the year.

In 2007 David Albright reported that "North Korea’s estimated stock of separated plutonium is enough for between 5 and 12 nuclear weapons, assuming that each weapon contains about 4-5 kilograms of plutonium..." In 2012 David Albright reported that "Based on considering all the scenarios, the central estimates are that North Korea has as of the end of 2011 enough WGU [Weapons Grade Uranium] for 0 to 11 nuclear weapons. The upper bound central estimates cluster in the range of 4-7 nuclear weapons. ... North Korea’s plutonium inventory appears capped, with enough for 6-18 nuclear weapons and a midpoint of 12 nuclear weapons. ... Thus, considering central estimates only, as of the end of 2011 North Korea has enough fissile material for 12-23 nuclear weapons."

Other sources suggested in 2013 that Pyongyang was believed to have enough plutonium to make up to eight bombs. Analysts also suspect the North is making fuel for uranium bombs.

During a parliament audit 27 October 2014, South Korean Defense Minister Han Min Koo said he believes Pyongyang is capable of building a uranium-based nuclear weapon. South Korean military and intelligence authorities believe that since 2010, the North has acquired up to 40 kilograms of highly enriched uranium per year, a sufficient amount to build up to two nuclear weapons.

Experts on nuclear weapons technology at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies estimated 26 February 2015 that North Korea currently had 10 to 16 nuclear weapons and was continuing to work on its nuclear program. Depending on the rate of production, they predicted Pyongyang will expand its nuclear arsenal from 20 to 100 weapons in the next five years.

The Wall Street Journal reported 22 April 2015 a Chinese estimate that the North may already possess 20 nuclear warheads was relayed in a closed-door meeting with US nuclear specialists at the China Institute of International Studies in February 2015. Chinese experts believed Pyongyang has a greater domestic capacity to enrich uranium than previously thought. The Chinese experts believed on the basis of what they've put together that the North Koreans have enough enriched uranium capacity to be able to make eight to 10 bombs' worth of highly enriched uranium per year.

A Russian military expert said 22 September 2015 that North Korea could have up to 50 nuclear weapons in the next five years. Vladimir Yevseyev, a department head at the CIS Countries Institute, made the prediction at a debate hosted by Moscow's state-run 'Russia Today' network. He said North Korea is currently focused on developing nuclear warheads and delivery vehicles and at its current pace, the regime would be able to build two submarines carrying SLBM, or submarine-launched ballistic missiles, by 2020.

Nuclear experts at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies estimated in 2016 that that North Korea had between 10 and 16 nuclear weapons and it could possess as many as 100 weapons by 2020.

Analysis by the Institute for Science and International Security released 15 June 2016 conclucded that North Korea’s nuclear arsenal had grown “significantly” to a total of 13 to 21 weapons, with the DPRK acquiring an additional 4 to 6 nuclear weapons in the last 18 months. This report came days after media reports indicating that the DPRK had resumed reprocessing nuclear fuel to harvest plutonium. In its report, ISIS said that the analysis on the production of separated plutonium, weapon-grade uranium and nuclear weapons put the estimated number of North Korean nuclear weapons at 10-16 at the end of 2014.

Former Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair warned Pyongyang could be more tempted to sell its nuclear materials or technology to earn cash amid increased sanctions. “I think they have more motivation now to increase their supply of hard currency any way they can, and the sale of nuclear materials, precursor materials or parts of weapons is certainly a possibility that has occurred to them,” Blair told VOA 10 March 2016.

"There will be a lot of different things they will be doing in terms of quality of their weapons, and it's not increasing the sizes. Stockpiles goes without saying, but they'll probably work on more miniaturization of warheads. They will work on reducing the amount of nuclear material in each of the warheads." Joel WItt, the co-founder of North Korea monitoring website 38 North said at a seminar in Seoul on 13 November 2015 that Pyongyang's nuclear arsenal could be as large as a hundred by 2020 if the regime is able to carry out a nuclear test each year.

Also at the seminar, weapons engineer John Schilling made note of the regime's increased emphasis on submarines since Kim Jong-un came to power in 2011 -- pointing to the regime's FIRST ocean-going submarine in 20-years. "Twenty-five years ago, under the regime of Kim Il-sung, North Korea had a very substantial program for building large ocean-going submarines. Under Kim Jong-un -- much more renewed emphasis on the larger submarines and on missile capabilities."

A South Korean security expert said 09 February 2017 that North Korea probably had enough nuclear material for somewhere between 22 and 45 nuclear weapons. Lee Sang-hyun of the Sejong Institute says North Korea is currently presumed to possess around 280 kilograms of highly enriched uranium and 52 kilograms of plutonium at the moment. His prediction is part of a report presented at a Seoul security conference Thursday.

Unlike plutonium, highly enriched uranium can be secretly produced at very small-scale facilities, making it very difficult to track. Lee said the North's plutonium stockpile is expected to increase six kilograms each year, while uranium may increase by as much as 80 kilograms.

North Korea could acquire up to 100 warheads by 2020 despite stopping nuclear and missile tests this year, NBC reported December 31, 2018. "North Korea continues to produce fissile material and develop missile bases around the country, according to experts and analysis of detailed satellite images," NBC said. "At the current rate of production, North Korea could have around 100 warheads by 2020 -- almost half the size of the U.K.'s stockpile," it quoted Robert Litwak of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington as saying. South Korean and U.S. intelligence agencies believed that the North currently had 20 to 60 nuclear warheads.

Dan Smith of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute predicted that Pyongyang will have between 30 to 40 nuclear warheads at its disposal in 2020, the South Korean newspaper Chosun Ilbo reported 17 September, citing his speech at the residence of the Swedish ambassador to South Korea in Seoul. SIPRI's previous report indicated that North Korea possessed 20 to 30 warheads in its arsenal, up from 10-20 in 2018. Smith's estimation therefore suggests that Pyongyang hasn't stopped developing nuclear weapons amid denuclearlisation talks with the US. “Honestly, though, there is a great deal of uncertainty regarding our estimate of North Korea's potential nuclear capability. And that's mainly because North Korea is not open about its capabilities”, SIPRI expert Shannon Kile, one of the world's leading experts on North Korea's nuclear programme, earlier admitted to Swedish national broadcaster SVT.

The US believes that North Korea owns up to 60 nuclear bombs and the world's third-largest stockpile of chemical weapons. In its report 'North Korean Tactics' published in July 2020, the US Army stated that the estimates for North Korean nuclear bombs range from twenty to sixty and the regime is capable of producing six new devices each year. It noted that the North could own up to a hundred nuclear bombs by the end of 2020r. The report also says North Korea is believed to have 2,500 to 5,000 tons of 20 different types of chemical weapons - the third-largest stockpile in the world. It adds that the regime has conducted research on biological weapons and weaponized anthrax, which can be put on top of missiles when fired against South Korea, the U.S., and Japan.

DPRK nuclear stockpile -  Asan InstituteNorth Korea may be able to secure up to 242 nuclear weapons and dozens of intercontinental ballistic missiles by 2027. The Asan Institute for Policy Studies along with the RAND Corporation made the estimate in a joint report released 13 April 2021. It was estimated that the total number of North Korea’s nuclear weapons by 2027 would be between 151 and 242.

"As a baseline, the U.S. intelligence community reportedly indicated that, in mid-2017, North Korea had 30 to 60 nuclear weapons.... the total plutonium inventory is estimated to be 30 to 63 kg at the end of 2019.... estimates of HEU production carry uncertainties because enrichment facilities leave only a small amount of physical footprint in construction and operation and are easy to cover up.... HEU appears to be North Korea’s main source for nuclear weapons today.... We assume that the 5 MWE reactor at Yongbyon will not likely begin operating again in the future, and that the new reactor at Yongbyon will not contribute plutonium for weapons through 2027. This is clearly a conservative assumption....

"The median estimate is 12 weapons per year, which is based on an article written by Ankit Panda.50 The high estimate is based on President Trump’s comments, made after the 2019 Hanoi Summit, that North Korea had five key nuclear weapon sites. The media have identified four sites as likely North Korean uranium enrichment facilities and have provided an estimate of the number of centrifuges for three of them: 4,000 centrifuges at Yongbyon,52 8,000 centrifuges at Kangson, and 10,000 centrifuges at Bungang. There is an unknown number of centrifuges at Sowi-ri.

The report called for measures to counter the North as the regime's nuclear weapons could pose a much greater threat in "much more coercive and diverse ways" to South Korea and the U.S., including the possibility of pre-emptive nuclear strikes. The research team stresses that all possible options should be considered to deliver the message to the North Korean regime of its annihilation if it chooses to use nuclear weapons. It also stresses that serious considerations should be given in deploying U.S. strategic nuclear weapons as well as mid-range nuclear missiles on the Korean Peninsula or regions nearby.

North Korea could have produced close to 540 kilograms of highly enriched uranium at the Yeongbyeon facility up to the end of 2020. That's according to former IAEA official, Olli Heinonen in a piece for the U.S.-based North Korea monitoring group 38 North on 16 July 2021. It is estimated that the regime could produce 20 to 27 nuclear warheads, given that it requires around 20 to 27 kilograms of highly enriched uranium to produce a nuclear warhead. The report added the North is capable of providing 150 to 160 kilograms of highly enriched uranium annually.

There's some difference when compared to an earlier report by Asan Institute for Policy Studies and the RAND Corporation, which says the regime possessed up to 116 nuclear weapons in 2020, and may have as many as 252 nuclear warheads by 2027. The report assumes three large uranium enrichment plants outside of Yeongbyeon, including one in Gangseon, but Heinonen said a recent study of the Gangseon facility showed it did not have the features necessary for full scale production. He added shutdown and dismantlement of the Yeongbyeon facilities would be an important part of a denuclearization process, as reportedly offered by North Korean leader Kim Jong-un at the Hanoi Summit in 2019.

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Page last modified: 13-09-2021 11:32:19 ZULU