An Overview of North Korea’s Weapons of Mass Destruction

An Overview of North Korea’s Weapons of Mass Destruction

On March 23, 2019, Posted by , In Information Reports, With Comments Off on An Overview of North Korea’s Weapons of Mass Destruction

Written by Semie Lee

North Korean Nuclear Weapons Capabilities

The recent breakdown of the US-North Korea summit in Hanoi casts doubt on whether or not the regime ever intends to rid of its nuclear arsenal.[1] According to the RAND Institute, North Korea may have enough fissile material to build between 13 and 21 nuclear weapons, possibly 50 to 100 by 2020. Most of its nuclear facilities are centered in Yongbyon County, which includes a spent fuel reprocessing facility and multiple waste storage sites. Its main testing site is an underground facility at Punggye-ri, where all of their known nuclear tests have been conducted (Figure 1). In 2018, Pyongyang began dismantling Punggye-ri. Media reports suggested that the underground tunnels had been subject to significant damage due to the nuclear testing and subsequently abandoned. According to 38 North, the mountains bordering the site has not been completely compromised and could be restructured to resume testing. Additionally, the Command Center and facilities for personnel and security forces remain largely standing (Figure 2).[2] Known weapon delivery mechanisms include theater ballistic missiles, and aircraft or ship-launched missiles; however, nuclear missiles capable of hitting intercontinental targets are currently in testing.[3]

North Korea tested its first intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) on July 4, 2017; experts estimated that the ICBM was capable of reaching the entire continental US and its territories. US intelligence reports later confirmed North Korea’s capability to fit miniaturized nuclear warheads to its ballistic missiles.[4] Most troubling is the new fuel propellant used in this launch, a highly potent liquid fuel called unsymmetrical dimethylhydrazine, or UDMH, that was included in the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) lists of banned export items in both 2012 and 2014. US intelligence also believes the North Korean regime may have already succeeded in the domestic production of UDMH.[5]

Figure 1. Map of North Korea’s nuclear test sites and related nuclear facilities

Note: (not pictured in graphic) North Korea tested its most powerful missile to date in 2017 (4 to 16 times more powerful than any previous tests), however, its claim of it being a hydrogen bomb has not been confirmed.[6]

Figure 2. Before and after commercial satellite imagery of Command Center

North Korean Chemical Weapons Capabilities

Despite signing the Geneva Protocol of 1925, which outlaws the use of chemical and biological weapons in warfare, North Korea has not signed the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC). The latter treaty is a more comprehensive multilateral agreement, which bans the use, possession, and proliferation of chemical weapons. [7] North Korea has denied the existence of any chemical arsenal but has since been accused of supplying chemical weapons technology to Syria and Libya, as well as employing a VX nerve agent, in the assassination of the regime leader’s half-brother, Kim Jong Nam.[8] Although the CWC entails the complete destruction of existing stockpiles, the difficulty of assessing the dual-use capabilities of chemicals adds to the complexity of compliance.

Chemical agents North Korea may be in possession of: [9]

  • Nerve agents (Sarin, V-type)
  • Blister agents (mustard)
  • Blood agents
  • Choking agents (phosgene)
  • Riot-control agents

Reports estimate Pyongyang has 12 chemical facilities where raw chemicals, precursors, and agents are produced, as well as 6 major storage depots for chemical weapons.[10]

North Korean Biological Weapons Capabilities

Evidence of North Korea’s biological weapons is the most elusive of its weapons of mass destruction (WMD). In 1997, US intelligence reported that North Korea had the technology and infrastructure to build a limited biological weapons program; this threat assessment has not since evolved to indicate an active biological weapons program.[11] North Korea is a signatory of the Biological Weapons Convention (BWC).

Biological agents that North Korea may be in possession of: [12]

  • Bacillus anthracis (Anthrax)
  • Clostridium botulinum (Botulism)
  • Vibrio cholerae (Cholera)
  • Bunyaviridae hantavirus (Korean Hemorrhagic Fever)
  • Yersinia pestis (Plague)
  • Variola (Smallpox)
  • Salmonella typhi (Typhoid Fever)
  • Coquillettidia fuscopennata (Yellow Fever)
  • Shigella (Dysentery)
  • Brucella (Brucellosis)
  • Staphylococcus aureus (Staph)
  • Rickettsia prowazekii (Typhus Fever)
  • T-2 mycotoxin (Alimentary Toxic Aleukia)

Reports indicate that 3 biological weapons productions (somewhere along the coast of Sohae, Chongju, and Munchon) and 6 biological weapons research facilities have been identified (locations for the latter not confirmed).[13]

[1] Josh Smith, “Burden Back on Diplomats as Trump and Kim Fail to Reach North Korea…,” Reuters, February 28, 2019, accessed February 28, 2019,

[2] North, “North Korea’s Punggye-ri Nuclear Test Site: Current Status and Future Inspections | 38 North: Informed Analysis of North Korea,” 38 North, December 12, 2018, , accessed March 21, 2019,

[3] “A Nuclear North Korea,” RAND Corporation, accessed March 21, 2019,

[4] Eleanor Albert, “What’s the Status of North Korea’s Nuclear Program?” Council on Foreign Relations, last modified June 6, 2018, accessed February 28, 2019,

[5] William J. Broad and David E. Sanger, “The Rare, Potent Fuel Powering North Korea’s Weapons,” The New York Times, September 17, 2017, accessed February 28, 2019,

[6] David E. Sanger and Choe Sang-hun, “North Korean Nuclear Test Draws U.S. Warning of ‘Massive Military Response’,” The New York Times, September 03, 2017, , accessed March 21, 2019,

[7] “Fact Sheets & Briefs,” The Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC) at a Glance, , accessed March 09, 2019,

[8] Matthew Pennington, “US Determines North Korea Used Chemical Weapons,” AP News, March 02, 2018, , accessed March 09, 2019,

[9] “North Korea,” Nuclear Threat Initiative – Ten Years of Building a Safer World, , accessed March 09, 2019, and John V. Parachini, “North Korea’s Chemical and Biological Weapons Capabilities-and How to Counter Them,” RAND Corporation, January 17, 2018, , accessed March 21, 2019,

[10] “North Korea,” Nuclear Threat Initiative – Ten Years of Building a Safer World, , accessed March 09, 2019,

[11] Jessica Lee, Richard Sokolsky, and Frank Jannuzi, “Why We Should Be Skeptical About Recent Reports on North Korea’s Biological Weapons Programs | 38 North: Informed Analysis of North Korea,” 38 North, January 30, 2019, , accessed March 09, 2019,

[12] Elizabeth Philipp, Hyung-Kyung Kim, and Hattie Chung, “North Korea’s Biological Weapons Program: The Known and Unknown,” Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, October 2017, , accessed March 21, 2019,

[13] Ibid.

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