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North Korea's nuclear arsenal: What we know so far

North Korea's tests of ICBMs and new nuclear devices have escalated tensions over the hermit kingdom's military ambitions. Here's what we know about Pyongyang's weapons and the political firestorm they have provoked

An undated picture released from North Korea’s official news agency on March 11, 2016, shows North Korean leader Kim Jong-un attending a mobile drill for ballistic rocket launch at an undisclosed location.

The weapons

Tensions on the Korean Peninsula have escalated since early 2017 after North Korea launched missile tests – some successful, others not – that purportedly showed increasing sophistication in the nuclear state's weapons program.

Missile tests over the summer and fall of 2017 showed successive progress in the North's efforts to develop long-range missiles that could target an increasing area of the world, including parts of Canada. The most purportedly powerful missile to date is the Hwasong-15. Based on a Nov. 29 test, U.S. scientists estimate it could go more than 13,000 km, far enough to reach the North American east coast. Some believe the range is actually shorter because the missile was likely tested with a lighter mock warhead.

But North Korea's warheads are getting more sophisticated and powerful too. On Sept. 3, Pyongyang said it had successfully tested a hydrogen bomb. The North's first nuclear test from 2006 had an estimated yield of 500 tons, meaning the blast was as powerful as the detonation of 500 tons of TNT. Chang Kyung-soo, a spokesperson for South Korea's Defence Ministry, estimated that the Sept. 3 test was 50 kilotons, 100 times more powerful than the 2006 detonation.

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To illustrate how big of an advance that is, here's a comparison of the 2006 and 2017 nuclear devices using the Nukemap, a detonation simulator created by researcher Alex Wellerstein. If the 2006 device went off at Parliament Hill in Ottawa, the explosion would be largely confined to the downtown core. The newer bomb would flatten most residential buildings from the University of Ottawa campus to the Canadian War Museum, and cause third-degree burns over an even larger area.

The small orange circle in each map is the fireball radius; the large orange circle is the thermal radiation radius, where humans would suffer third-degree burns; the green circle is the radiation radius, where humans would be subjected to 500 rem of radiation, killing them within hours or weeks.

How the UN responded

On Sept. 11, the United Nations voted unanimously to impose the toughest sanctions yet on North Korea, though they stopped short of stronger measures that Washington had been seeking.

Cap on crude-oil imports: The original U.S. proposal would have completely cut off the North's oil supply, most of which comes from China. A compromise instead limited imports to two million barrels per year of refined petroleum products, and capped crude exports to the North at current levels.

Ban on textile exports: Textiles were North Korea's second-biggest export after coal and other minerals in 2016, totalling $752-million, according to data from the Korea Trade-Investment Promotion Agency. Banning exports hampered one of the North's major money makers, but enforcing the ban over a 1,400-kilometre border with China, the main buyer of North Korean textiles, was challenging.

Inspecting ships: The resolution asked countries around the world to inspect ships going in and out of North Korea's ports (a provision put in place by the Security Council in 2009) but did not authorize the use of force for ships that do not comply, as the Trump administration had originally proposed.

What wasn't banned: Trade in goods including food and other daily necessities continued between China and North Korea carried by hundreds of trucks crossing back and forth every day.

A portrait of U.S. President Donald Trump is displayed as South Korean protesters stage a rally denouncing the United States’s policy against North Korea near the U.S. embassy in Seoul on April 12, 2017.

How Trump responded

Denial: Weeks before his inauguration, Mr. Trump, then the U.S. president-elect, tweeted that the North's development of a nuclear warhead capable of reaching U.S. soil "won't happen."

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Anger: In April, Mr. Trump announces that the U.S. is sending "an armada" of vessels to the Korean Peninsula, after the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier strike group is ordered to head there from Singapore. The move fans fears that Mr. Trump is weighing military action. His rhetoric on Twitter and in public escalates, and he begins to refer to North Korean leader Kim Jong-un as "Rocket Man." Then, in a Sept. 18 speech to the United Nations General Assembly, the President warned that the U.S. would "have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea" if threatened. In a rare direct statement, Mr. Kim responded by saying: "I will surely and definitely tame the mentally deranged U.S. dotard with fire."

Bargaining: In November, Mr. Trump went on a 12-day Asian tour to reassure allies about America's willingness to act in the Korean crisis. In Japan, the rhetoric is tough, with warnings to Pyongyang not to "underestimate American resolve." But in Seoul, Mr. Trump struck a more conciliatory tone, urging the North to "come to the table" to discuss a way to end its nuclear program.

More anger: In his New Year's address, Mr. Kim warns that he has a "nuclear button" on his desk and the willingness to use it. Mr. Trump boasts that his button is bigger and more powerful than Mr. Kim's. (U.S. presidents do not have a physical button to launch nuclear devices, instead relying on a complex system staffed by military officers who follow the president everywhere. Here's a primer on how it works.)


North Korean leader Kim Jong-un meets scientists and technicians in the field of nuclear-weapons research in this undated photo released by North Korea’s official news agency on March 9, 2016.

South Korea’s President Moon Jae-In attends an emergency meeting of the National Security Council in Seoul on May 14, 2017.

The two Koreas

The nuclear crisis with the North came in an inconvenient year for the South, which began 2017 in a severe political crisis involving president Park Geun-hye, who was removed by a court and jailed on corruption charges. Moon Jae-in, a liberal former human rights lawyer, was sworn in as president on May 11. He supported closer ties with North Korea, saying hard-line approaches failed to prevent the North's development of nuclear-armed missiles and only reduced South Korea's voice in international efforts to counter North Korea.

Over the spring and summer of 2017, new North Korean missile tests ratcheted up tensions with Seoul. But while Pyongyang's rhetoric against Mr. Trump and the West intensified, Mr. Kim began signalling détente with Seoul, promising in his New Year's speech – the same speech where he boasted about his "nuclear button" – he called for improved relations with the South. A long-suspended hotline between North and South was reopened for direct communication.

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Then on Jan. 9, the two Koreas jointly announced that they would hold talks on reducing military tensions and "actively co-operate" in February's Winter Olympics in South Korea, with Pyongyang sending a small delegation to the games.


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