North Korea’s Nuclear and Missile Programs
Asia Report N°168
18 Jun 2009
This background report examines what is known about the North Korean nuclear and missile programs in mid-2009. It is based on open source literature, interviews and unpublished documents made available to Crisis Group. Companion reports, published simultaneously, address the appropriate policy response of the international community to recent nuclear and missile developments and assess the DPRK’s chemical and biological weapons capabilities.
Prior to the 1980s, North Korea had a clear military advantage over South Korea, but the balance of conventional forces has turned against Pyongyang, especially after the end of the Cold War. During the famine of the mid-1990s, the North Korean leadership increasingly relied on the military to manage government affairs and it introduced a “military first” policy in 1998 to coincide with Kim Jong-il’s official rise to power. Since economic woes have made it impossible to compete with neighbours in conventional forces, Pyongyang has had a strong incentive to retain and expand its asymmetric capabilities.
North Korea’s nuclear and missile arsenal is already of worrying size. Pyongyang possibly has deployed over 600 short-range Scud variants that can strike South Korea, and as many as 320 medium-range Nodong missiles that can strike Japan. Long-range missiles with the potential to hit the continental U.S. are still under development. It probably has somewhere between six and twelve nuclear weapons, or at least explosive devices. Experts are divided as to whether weaponisation technology has advanced far enough for any of these to be now useable as warheads: for this purpose weapons have to be small enough to be mounted on missiles and durable enough to withstand the rigours of flight. Even if they are not at this stage now, each year and each test bring that moment closer.
While North Korean military doctrine still emphasises offensive tactics, the nuclear weapons are of little use except for deterrence, which is reflected in the posture of deployments and in the command and control structure. Nevertheless, misperception, miscalculation, escalation or a change in military strategy could conceivably lead to their deliberate, accidental or unauthorised use. The risk of an accidental nuclear explosion cannot be ignored, given uncertainty about the sophistication of the North’s technology and its known generally poor safety standards.
Moreover, Pyongyang has sold missiles, missile components and technology to several countries and has been cooperating with Iran to develop long-range missiles and space launch vehicles. Its missile program has been an important source of hard currency and a symbol of national power that the leadership exploits for internal political control.
For all these reasons, the denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula and the halting of the North’s ballistic missile program remain crucial policy priorities for neighbours, as well as the wider international community that continues to be acutely concerned about the proliferation implications. Whatever the motives that have driven its development, the elimination of North Korea’s nuclear and missile arsenal will require considerable planning and resources.
Diplomatic efforts should focus on the nuclear issue now, but progress on this front would create opportunities to address Pyongyang’s other weapons of mass destruction (WMD), including a large chemical weapons stockpile and possible biological weapons, which must be eliminated before a stable and permanent peace can be established in North East Asia.
Seoul/Brussels, 18 June 2009
 Crisis Group Asia Report N°169, North Korea: Getting Back to Talks, 18 June 2009; Crisis Group Asia Report N°167, North Korea’s Chemical and Biological Weapons Programs, 18 June 2009.