North Korea's Nuclear Potential

North Korea's statements, perceived as possible preparations for war, have sparked new debates about the strength of North Korea's nuclear potential. We use this concept to provide a picture of the entirety of Pyongyang’s nuclear arsenal, including both the number of nuclear warheads and the number and variety of delivery vehicles. In addition, regulations governing the use of nuclear weapons are also important to access the potential; we will consider this matter separately.

The DPRK clearly positions itself as a nuclear power: this status is included in the country's constitution, and one of the six nuclear tests was declared as a hydrogen bomb test. However, the closed nature of the DPRK renders a number of estimates approximate, since the main sources of information are satellite images or official photographs from missile launches or visits by Kim Jong-un to military-industrial complex enterprises.

Estimated number of nuclear warheads

Estimates of the country's nuclear power are quite strongly related to the propaganda image of the DPRK. As a result, nuclear potential is either completely underestimated, because “a tyrannical regime cannot create anything worthwhile,” or, on the contrary, overestimated, because a tyrannical regime must pose a threat to the world. As a result, as can be seen from the table of various estimates made in 2022-2023*, the figures differ quite seriously.

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However, as Russian military expert Vladimir Khrustalev notes, the higher numbers seem more relevant for two reasons. First, the DPRK has a functioning military-industrial complex that has retained its personnel and engineering base, including the availability of CNC machines. Second, the number of nuclear warheads is calculated in accordance with the potential volume of produced weapons-grade uranium and plutonium. However, it would be incorrect to imagine these figures reflecting the characteristics of the first generation of atomic bombs. North Korea's nuclear programme is developing, and Pyongyang is able to take into account the latest achievements.

According to experts from the American Institute of Science and International Security (ISIS),  in addition to the well-known centre in Yongbyon, there could be 1-2 secret uranium enrichment enterprises operating in the DPRK, with a total volume of about 10,000 centrifuges. Of these, 4,000 are located in Yongbyon, and the remaining 6,000 are in other places, including the proposed nuclear complex in Kansong.

What do the conditional 100 warheads mean? According to FAS experts, Russia has the largest number of nuclear warheads in the world (5,889), followed by the USA  (5244). They are followed by China (410), France (290), Great Britain (225), Pakistan (170), India (164) and Israel (90). The indicated figure makes North Korea comparable to other "small nuclear countries".

According to Park Chul-gyun, director of the Centre for Security Strategy of the Global Defence Research Foundation (GDRF), 170 warheads, if necessary, would allow for simultaneous strikes on the main airfields, ports and military installations of the ROK to prevent assistance and reinforcements from the United States, but it will take the DPRK more than 10 years to achieve this goal.
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Delivery vehicles

North Korean nuclear weapons correspond to a large range of delivery vehicles for both strategic and tactical strikes. The first group includes Hwasong-type ICBMs, the liquid-fuel Hwasong-16 and the solid-fuel Hwasong-17 and Hwasong-18. Although the missiles were launched along a high-altitude trajectory, calculations show that they can reach the continental United States, and the range of the Hwasong-17 is 15,000 km. According to the Defence Intelligence Agency (DIA), it can be equipped with a super-heavy nuclear warhead or a warhead with multiple nuclear warheads.

Not all experts accept the possibility that both North Korean ICBMs are capable of surviving re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere. However, the option of an atmospheric explosion at an altitude of 40-50 km is capable of damaging electronics over large areas, and it is also under consideration.

Moreover, in addition to ground-based launchers, North Korea is armed with at least one submarine, potentially equipped with Pukguksong missiles with a nuclear warhead. Launches from sites located under the surface of a lake were also tested.

The range of missiles designed to defeat nearby enemies such as the United States and South Korea is significantly more diverse. These include the Hwasal-1 and Hwasal-2 cruise missiles (range 1,500 and 2,000 km), including those which are launchable from a submarine, the Haeil underwater kamikaze drone, and a missile with a hypersonic glider, which is estimated to be capable of hitting Seoul within one or two minutes after launch. 

Among the short-range ballistic missiles, we note the KN-23 tactical missile systems, which have a range of 800 km (the so-called “Kimskander”) and the KN-24 systems, which have a range of over 400 km (the North Korean version of ATACMS), as well as the KN-25 ultra-large-calibre (600 mm) MLRS, which actually fires missiles with the intensity of a Katyusha rocket system, blurring the line between missile systems and multiple launch rocket systems.

At a minimum, the KN-23, KN-24 and KN-25 can carry the Hwasong-31 tactical nuclear warhead, the markings on which may indicate mass production. According to preliminary estimates, its estimated power does not exceed 10 kilotons, and its diameter is about 40-50 cm, which allows it to be installed on a number of carriers.

Only in early 2024, North Korea tested a number of missiles under development, including a solid-fuel medium-range ballistic missile equipped with a hypersonic manoeuvrable guided warhead, an underwater strike nuclear drone and submarine-launched cruise missiles.

At the same time, training launches and exercises to test combat readiness take place regularly, often in the presence of Kim Jong-un, whose military education allows him to carry out professional, rather than “general” process management. The number of fired missiles suggests that we are not talking about single experimental samples, but about mass production.
Such a diverse arsenal makes the South Korean missile defence system virtually defenceless against a North Korean attack.

This, however, has pushed the South Korean military to think about a preventive strike, which they see as the only adequate means of deterrence.

Application regulations

As for the main use of nuclear weapons, it was reflected in the “Law on the DPRK Nuclear Weapons Policy” adopted in September 2022. The document emphasises the North's status as a nuclear power, and positions nuclear weapons as a central component of the country's entire national defence system. As a responsible nuclear power, the DPRK undertakes not to transfer military nuclear technology to third countries and comply with the non-proliferation regime, as well as not to use nuclear weapons against non-nuclear states, excluding those who pursue a hostile policy towards it, as part of an alliance with nuclear states (i.e., US allies, primarily Japan and the Republic of Korea). In addition, it was officially announced that nuclear weapons are not subject to bargaining, and any talk about denuclearisation is meaningless.

Nuclear deterrence forces perform two main tasks: reducing the threat and likelihood of an attack on the DPRK, as well as inflicting unacceptable damage and a crushing defeat on the enemy if the attack occurs. The immediate conditions under which Pyongyang could use nuclear weapons are the following:

  • in the event of a nuclear strike or a high probability of a nuclear strike against the DPRK, as well as a strike using other types of weapons of mass destruction;
  • in the event of the commission or high probability of a nuclear or non-nuclear attack on the leadership of the state and armed forces;
  • in the event of an attack or high probability of an attack on important strategic state facilities;
  • for the purposes of the need to prevent the escalation of war, in order to conduct operations to seize the initiative in combat operations;
  • under other circumstances that could cause a catastrophic crisis that threatens the existence of the country and people.

As you can see, in general, these regulations resemble the Russian doctrine of nuclear deterrence, and the DPRK declares compliance with the non-proliferation regime. However, there is one important difference in North Korea: unlike Russia, the DPRK does not have effective control means capable of tracking an enemy nuclear attack.
That is why it is forced to reserve the right to a pre-emptive strike, not only in the event of an actual attack, but in the event of a high probability or rumours of one.

Although Pyongyang's enemies portray this passage as a cop-out, in reality the language is more geared towards nuclear deterrence, designed to encourage adversaries not to engage in suspicious actions that could be misinterpreted.

In conclusion, a few words about the prospects for the development of nuclear potential. Although, despite the constant forecasts of Western analysts who “prescribed” a nuclear explosion on one date or another, the seventh nuclear test has not yet occurred in 2022-23; this can be explained both by Moscow’s position and the availability of computer modelling capabilities for such processes. However, it is believed that the probability of testing remains high because it is required to test a number of tactical nuclear weapons.

The strengthening of relations between Pyongyang and Moscow is also a source of rumours about possible cooperation in the nuclear missile field, but so far there have been no visible fruits of such cooperation. Speculations about the Russian trace of North Korean missiles is not supported by sufficient argumentation, and taking into account the factor of bureaucratic inertia, even if such a decision was made during the summit of Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-un at the Vostochny cosmodrome, the technology transfer could not have happened so quickly, and there’s even less of a chance that their implementation would be possible. In addition, cooperation between the two countries in the field of civil space and satellite launches seems more likely than cooperation between the two countries in the field of nuclear weaponry.

Thus, modern North Korea is a full member of the nuclear club. Its nuclear missile potential has crossed the bar of minimum deterrence and is an important factor in deterring military conflict on the peninsula. The United States will have to learn to live with the knowledge that North Korean nuclear weapons will be aimed at the American heartland.

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Council on Foreign Relations (CFR), a private US think tank. URL:

Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (BAS). URL:

Korea Institute for Defense Analyses (KIDA). URL:

Korea Institute for Defense Analyses (KIDA). URL:

Dong-Yup Kim, professor at the University of North Korean Studies. URL:

Korea Institute for Defense Analyses (KIDA). URL:

American Institute for Science and International Security (ISIS). URL:

Federation of American Scientists (FAS). URL:

Jun Bong-geun, Professor of Korea National Diplomatic Academy (KNDA). URL:  

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.