Korea

Report on North Korea’s Nuclear Weapons, Missile Programs

North Korea continues to advance its nuclear weapons and missile programs despite high-level diplomatic efforts and UN Security Council sanctions. In April 2018, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said that nuclear and long-range missile testing was no longer necessary because the country had achieved its objectives. However, in the past two years, North Korea has increased the testing pace for its ballistic missile and submarine-launched systems. In late December 2019, Kim announced that, due to the United States’ policies, “there is no ground” for North Korea to continue to maintain its testing moratoria.

Recent missile tests suggest that North Korea is striving to build a credible nuclear warfighting capability designed to evade regional ballistic missile defenses. Such an approach likely reinforces a deterrence and coercive diplomacy strategy—lending more credibility as it demonstrates capability—but it also raises questions about crisis stability and escalation control. Congress may choose to examine U.S. policy in light of these advances.

North Korean statements describe North Korea’s nuclear arsenal as a deterrent to U.S. “nuclear war threats.” Kim Jong Un said at the 2016 Workers’ Party Congress that “nuclear weapons of the DPRK can be used only by a final order of the Supreme Commander of the Korean People’s Army [Kim Jong Un] to repel invasion or attack from a hostile nuclear weapons state and make retaliatory strikes.” The U.S. intelligence community has said North Korean leaders view nuclear weapons as “critical to regime survival” and intended for “deterrence, international prestige, and coercive diplomacy.”

In the April 2018 Panmunjom Declaration by North and South Korea and the June 2018 U.S.-North Korea Joint Statement, Kim Jong Un pledged to improve relations and “work toward complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” However, the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) said in his 2019 threat assessment to Congress that “North Korea is unlikely to give up all of its nuclear weapons and production capabilities, even as it seeks to negotiate partial denuclearization steps to obtain key US and international concessions.”

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Congressional Research Service

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