Is Kim Jong-un’s order placing North Korea’s nuclear weapons ready for use at a moment's notice to carry out preemptive attacks realistic? Does North Korea even have an arsenal of nuclear weapons? Do North Korea’s long-range missile and nuclear tests mean they have the capability to place a small nuclear device on such a missile?
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North Korea’s four nuclear tests and long-range missile tests that have placed a satellite into orbit are proof of some of its technical capabilities. But given the opaqueness of the North Korean regime, it’s difficult to get clear answers to those questions.
What is certain is that North Korea wants to develop those capabilities.
“North Korea is committed to developing a long-range, nuclear-armed missile that is capable of posing a direct threat to the United States,” said the Pentagon’s most recent assessment of North Korea’s weapons capabilities released a few weeks ago.
That same report said North Korea’s ballistic missile developments and nuclear weapons technology “are in line with North Korea’s stated objective of being able to strike the U.S. homeland.” But it appears North Korea has still not been able to achieve that capability.
How Many Nuclear Weapons Does North Korea Have?
The United States believes that North Korea has the capability to develop nuclear weapons, as shown by its four nuclear tests since 2006. However, it is difficult to pinpoint whether they have actually built a small arsenal of rudimentary nuclear weapons or have just built individual nuclear devices that are used for testing their technology.
U.S. intelligence has been vague in characterizing whether North Korea has nuclear weapons or not. What is known is that given their nuclear efforts with plutonium and uranium in the past decade, they have produced enough nuclear fuel to build some nuclear devices, but estimates vary among think tanks as to how many weapons they could build if they wanted to.
“It is generally estimated in open sources that North Korea has produced between 30 and 40 kilograms of separated plutonium, enough for at least half a dozen nuclear weapons,” according to a January 2016 Congressional Research Service report.
But other estimates range higher. The Institute for Science and International Security estimated in 2014 that North Korea could build 10 to 16 nuclear weapons.
The U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies stated in a 2015 report that with continued North Korean nuclear production, “The stockpile increases from a current low level of 10 weapons to 20 weapons by 2020."
But the think tank estimated that potentially 100 weapons could be developed if North Korea ramped up its nuclear fuel production to maximum capability.
James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence, told Congress in February that North Korea had restarted its plutonium reactor in Yongbyon that had been shut down in 2007.
“We further assess that North Korea has been operating the reactor long enough so that it could begin to recover plutonium from the reactor’s spent fuel within a matter of weeks to months,” Clapper said. That means North Korea will soon have more nuclear fuel that could be used for nuclear weapons.
Can North Korea Place a Small Nuclear Weapon on an ICBM?
As part of its commitment to threaten the United States with an intercontinental ballistic missile, North Korea has a weapon called the KN-08, a long-range missile that can be launched from mobile platforms that can be hard to detect, Clapper noted.
The KN-08 is more worrisome to U.S. defense officials than the stationary rocket launches that North Korea has used to conduct what it says are satellite test launches because it can be hard to detect mobile platforms on short notice.
"We assess that North Korea has already taken initial steps toward fielding this system, although the system has not been flight-tested," Clapper said.
In April 2013, an assessment by the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) was made public at a congressional hearing that indicated North Korea might be capable of placing a nuclear weapon small enough to be delivered by a missile.
"DIA assesses with moderate confidence the North currently has nuclear weapons capable of delivery by ballistic missiles. However, the reliability will be low," the unclassified assessment noted. Moderate confidence is an intelligence term that signals plausibility.
The DIA analysis led to push-back from the Pentagon and Clapper, who said it was only a DIA assessment and that the intelligence community as a whole had not made that determination.
“It would be inaccurate to suggest that the North Korean regime has fully developed and tested the kinds of nuclear weapons referenced in the passage," said then-Pentagon spokesman George Little. “I would add that the statement read by the Member is not an Intelligence Community assessment. Moreover, North Korea has not yet demonstrated the full range of capabilities necessary for a nuclear-armed missile.”