The United States and its Asian allies regard North Korea as a grave security threat. It has one of the world’s largest conventional military forces, which, combined with its escalating missile and nuclear tests and aggressive rhetoric, has aroused concern worldwide. But world powers have been ineffective in slowing its path to acquire nuclear weapons. The North’s leader, Kim Jong-un, sees the nuclear program as the means to sustain his regime. While it remains among the poorest countries in the world, North Korea spends nearly a quarter of its GDP on its military, according to U.S. State Department estimates. Its brinkmanship will continue to test regional and international partnerships aimed at preserving stability and security.
What are North Korea's nuclear capabilities?
North Korea is believed to have between fifteen to twenty nuclear bombs and has successfully tested a series of different missiles, including short-, medium-, and intermediate-range, and submarine-launched ballistic missiles. To date, North Korea has conducted five nuclear tests: in October 2006 and May 2009 under Kim Jong-il; and in February 2013 and January and September of 2016 under Kim Jong-un’s leadership. The regime claims to have miniaturized a nuclear warhead to be small enough to place on a missile and has attempted to operationalize an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM); future nuclear tests are anticipated. North Korea possesses the know-how to produce bombs with weapons-grade uranium or plutonium, the primary elements required for making fissile material—the core component of nuclear weapons.
With each test, North Korea’s nuclear explosions have grown in power. The first explosion in 2006 was a plutonium-fueled atomic bomb with a yield equivalent to two kilotons of TNT, an energy unit used to measure the power of an explosive blast. The 2009 test had a yield of eight kilotons; the 2013 and January 2016 tests both had yields of approximately seventeen kilotons; and the September 2016 test had a yield of thirty-five kilotons, according to data from the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a Washington, DC-based nonpartisan think tank. (For comparison, the U.S. bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945, the first atom bomb, had an estimated yield of sixteen kilotons.)