The Unha-3 (Milky Way 3) rocket is pictured sitting on a launch pad at the West Sea Satellite Launch Site, during a guided media tour by North Korean authorities in Pyongyang, April 8, 2012

A Nuclear North Korea

The Unha-3 (Milky Way 3) rocket is pictured on a launch pad during a guided media tour by North Korean authorities in 2012

Photo by Bobby Yip/Reuters

North Korea (or the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, DPRK) appears to be rapidly building a significant nuclear arsenal and the means to deliver those weapons. The most recent open-source estimates suggest North Korea may already have enough fissile material to build between 13 and 21 nuclear weapons; by 2020, it could possess enough for 50 to 100. The DPRK can already deliver nuclear weapons by aircraft or ship and perhaps by theater ballistic missiles; it is now testing nuclear-capable missiles that could threaten targets across the Pacific Ocean, including the continental United States. Current estimates suggest a number of these nuclear-tipped missiles—long-range, road-mobile, and submarine-launched—could be operational between 2020 and 2025.

Estimating North Korea's Nuclear Range

Why Is the Issue Important for the Incoming Administration?

During the next four to six years, Pyongyang will possess a nuclear force of sufficient size, diversity, reliability, and survivability to invalidate our regional military posture and war plans by holding at risk key bases and amplifying the risk to allies. A DPRK nuclear force approaching 100 weapons with multiple delivery means likely poses an unacceptable threat to U.S. and South Korea (or the Republic of Korea, ROK) security, as well as a serious proliferation threat. If the ROK perceives an imminent, major DPRK threat, it might preemptively execute its conventional counterforce capabilities against DPRK nuclear and missile facilities, likely leading to counter-escalation or even preemption by the DPRK. Also, some in the ROK and Japan are losing faith in the U.S. nuclear umbrella and are upset by the U.S. failure to constrain DPRK nuclear developments, leading them to call for independent nuclear arsenals. Either an ROK or Japanese decision to develop nuclear weapons would likely lead the other to follow suit, fundamentally changing northeast Asian security dynamics and questioning the viability of the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT).

From its very first DPRK policy review, the incoming administration will confront a number of critical policy questions that should not be deferred.

  • What level of DPRK nuclear development is truly unacceptable, and what could we do about it before that moment arrives? What should be conveyed to Pyongyang, Beijing, Seoul, and Tokyo?
  • Is there a viable concept for a negotiated pause in DPRK nuclear development? Would the DPRK abide by any negotiated limits? Failing any arms control arrangement, would U.S. engagement with the DPRK contribute to crisis stability in a possible nuclear confrontation? What are the risks of such engagement?
  • How should the United States deter DPRK nuclear use in a major crisis involving a cycle of provocations, and what should it do if deterrence fails?
  • If the ROK was planning to initiate a counterforce attack in a crisis, how should the United States respond?
  • What actions should the United States take to reassure its allies so they do not feel the need to develop nuclear weapons in response to the growing DPRK threat?
  • What should U.S. policy be if the ROK, Japan, or both develop nuclear weapons?
A resident walks past wreckage of houses destroyed by North Korean artillery shelling on Yeonpyeong island, South Korea, November 25, 2010

A resident walks past wreckage of houses destroyed by North Korean artillery shelling on Yeonpyeong island, South Korea (2010)

Photo by Jo Yong-Hak/Reuters

RAND Research Addresses North Korea

In Their Own Words

Senior RAND researcher Bruce Bennett outlines some of the consequences of a North Korean collapse following a 2013 congressional briefing.

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