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Wednesday, February 27, 2013

North Korea’s Nuclear Weapons: Technical Issues

Mary Beth Nikitin
Specialist in Nonproliferation

This report summarizes what is known from open sources about the North Korean nuclear weapons program—including weapons-usable fissile material and warhead estimates—and assesses current developments in achieving denuclearization. Little detailed open-source information is available about the DPRK’s nuclear weapons production capabilities, warhead sophistication, the scope and success of its uranium enrichment program, or extent of its proliferation activities. In total, it is estimated that North Korea has between 30 and 50 kilograms of separated plutonium, enough for at least half a dozen nuclear weapons. While North Korea’s weapons program has been plutonium-based from the start, in the past decade, intelligence emerged pointing to a second route to a bomb using highly enriched uranium. North Korea openly acknowledged a uranium enrichment program in 2009, but has said its purpose is the production of fuel for nuclear power. In November 2010, North Korea showed visiting American experts early construction of a 100 MWT light-water reactor and a newly built gas centrifuge uranium enrichment plant, both at the Yongbyon site. The North Koreans claimed the enrichment plant was operational, but this has not been independently confirmed. U.S. officials have said that it is likely other, clandestine enrichment facilities exist. A February 2012 announcement committed North Korea to moratoria on nuclear and long-range missile testing as well as uranium enrichment suspension at Yongbyon under IAEA monitoring. However, an April 2012 satellite launch, which violated UN Security Council resolutions, caused a collapse of the February agreement. A December 2012 satellite launch was met with UN Security Council condemnation. North Korea has also made policy statements asserting its nuclear weapons status: in May 2012, North Korea changed its constitution to say that it was a “nuclear-armed state.” In January 2013, North Korea said that no dialogue on denuclearization “would be possible” and it would only disarm when all the other nuclear weapon states also disarm.

Many experts believe that the prime objective of North Korea’s nuclear program is to develop a nuclear warhead that could be mounted on North Korea’s intermediate-range and long-range missiles. Miniaturization of a nuclear warhead would likely require additional nuclear and missile tests. In January 2013, a North Korean statement said that it would respond with a nuclear test “of higher level.” On February 12, 2013, the North Korean official news agency announced a “successful” underground nuclear detonation, and seismic monitoring systems measured a resulting earthquake that was 5.1 in magnitude. This is magnitude is slightly higher than past tests, but yield estimates are still uncertain. The South Korean Ministry of Defense estimated that the test yield was between 6 and 7 kilotons, while the U.S. Director of National Intelligence so far has said “approximately several kilotons.” North Korea claimed that the February 12, 2013, nuclear test was to develop a “smaller and light” warhead. At a minimum, the test would likely contribute to North Korea’s ability to develop a warhead that could be mounted on a long-range missile. It is unclear what impact a third nuclear test would have on future negotiations, but it would make their success far less likely. Observers are also waiting for evidence from test emissions that might show whether the North Koreans tested a uranium or plutonium device. This information could help determine the type and sophistication of the North Korean nuclear warhead design, about which little is known.

Date of Report: February 12, 2013
Number of Pages: 35
Order Number: RL34256
Price: $29.95

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