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North Korea’s nuclear arsenal: What’s happened so far, and what could happen next


North Korea's nuclear arsenal: What's happened so far, and what could happen next

North Korea's tests of intercontinental ballistic missiles and an alleged hydrogen bomb have escalated tensions over the nuclear nation's military ambitions. Get caught up on the situation and what the U.S., South Korea and Asian nations are doing about it

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 latest

  • The U.S. is “totally prepared” for a military option in the Korean Peninsula if necessary, President Donald Trump warned Tuesday as North Korea bolstered its defences in the escalating standoff with Washington.
  • In New York on Monday, Foreign Minister Ri Yong-ho said Mr. Trump had “declared war on our country,” adding that Pyongyang reserves the right to shoot down U.S. strategic bombers even if they are not in North Korean airspace. The statement was a response to a tweet from Mr. Trump suggesting North Korean leader Kim-Jong-un “won’t be around much longer.”
  • White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders on Monday denied the United States had declared war, calling the suggestion “absurd.”
  • Monday’s statements marked another escalation in the war of words between the U.S. President and North Korea. Earlier, Mr. Trump, calling Mr. Kim “Rocket Man,” told the United Nations that he would “totally destroy” the North if threatened, while Mr. Kim called Mr. Trump a “mentally deranged U.S. dotard.”
  • On Sunday, Mr. Trump added North Korea, along with Venezuela and Chad, to an expanded version of his travel ban, which had previously targeted a list of Muslim-majority countries. For North Koreans, such restrictions would be largely symbolic: North Korea doesn’t let its ordinary citizens travel abroad except in special cases. Most or all of the North Koreans living in the United States are based at the country’s UN diplomatic mission.
  • Global outrage at North Korea’s nuclear program has escalated since Sept. 3, when Pyongyang claimed a successful test of a hydrogen bomb.
  • New UN sanctions against North Korea, approved unanimously on Sept. 11, target some of Pyongyang’s biggest remaining foreign revenue streams, including the lucrative textile industry. But they stop short of completely cutting off the North’s oil, as the Trump administration wanted.

The basics

Tensions on the Korean Peninsula have escalated in the past few months 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 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.

Then on Sept. 3, North Korea 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.

What the UN is doing

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. This is how the latest UN resolution affects the North.

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 limits imports to two million barrels per year of refined petroleum products, and caps 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 would hamper 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 - could prove challenging, North Korea experts say.

Inspecting ships: The resolution asks 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 does not authorize the use of force for ships that do not comply, as the Trump administration had originally proposed.

What isn't banned yet: Trade in non-banned goods including food and other daily necessities continues 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.

What Trump's options are

U.S. President Donald Trump's options appear limited in dealing with a challenge that has vexed his Oval Office predecessors. Most options fall into four categories: economic sanctions, covert action, diplomatic negotiations and military force.

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Economic and trade sanctions

North Korea is already among the most heavily sanctioned nations, facing numerous strictures to limit its ability to conduct commerce, participate in international finance and trade in weapons and other contraband. Despite those measures, "most analysts agree that U.S. and multilateral sanctions have not prevented North Korea from advancing its fledgling nuclear weapons capability," said a report last year from the U.S. Congressional Research Service.

Covert action

The United States, with help from Israel, temporarily set back Iran's nuclear program via a computer virus called Stuxnet, which destroyed thousands of centrifuges used to enrich uranium. The United States tried, but failed, to deploy a version of the Stuxnet virus to attack North Korea's nuclear weapons program in 2009-2010, Reuters reported in 2015.

Another semi-covert approach would be for Washington to use electronic warfare or cyber attacks to disable North Korean missiles during or shortly after their launch. The high failure rate of the North's missile tests has prompted speculation that the United States is already doing so.


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China, backed by Russia, has been urging an immediate return to talks, predicated on the U.S. halting joint military exercises with South Korea and the North suspending its weapons development. But few in the U.S. government have advocated direct talks with the North Koreans until their behaviour significantly changes. In the past, talks with the North have failed to prevent it from advancing its weapons program for long, and the U.S. has accused Pyongyang of cheating on an earlier agreement.

Military force

The U.S. military for years has had a full range of contingency plans prepared for potential strikes on the North to try to disrupt its nuclear program or dissuade it from developing further. But over the years, the military options have consistently been viewed as unworkable, owing to the sheer horror that would ensue if North Korea retaliated, as would be expected, by striking South Korea. The North Koreans have massive military assets stockpiled on what is the world's most heavily fortified border.

The U.S. has roughly 28,000 troops in South Korea, and there are hundreds of thousands more American citizens just in Seoul, the capital, with a metro area population of 25 million. General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, has said if war broke out, there would be heavy civilian casualties in the first few days before the U.S. could mitigate the North's ability to strike Seoul.


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.

What Pyongyang is doing

Mr. Kim's goals are twofold: shrinking a nuclear weapon to a size that can fit atop a long-range missile, and developing a hydrogen bomb. By September, the North claimed to have achieved both those goals. But the actual nature of the North's weapons program is hard to ascertain, given how carefully Mr. Kim and the military have managed information for propaganda purposes. The Kim family, which has ruled the country for three generations, has entrenched its rule by portraying the country as being relentlessly under siege, leaving its people unable to distinguish between daily hyperbole and the reality of an increasingly tense situation.

Getting a missile capable of striking the mainland United States would require a flight of 8,000 km or more and technology to ensure a warhead's stable re-entry into the atmosphere. Any missile with such range would also be able to strike much of western and northern Canada.

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

What Seoul is doing

Tensions with the North re-emerged this year as South Korea grappled with a severe political crisis and the election of a new president.

Moon Jae-in, a liberal former human rights lawyer, was sworn in on May 11 only hours after his election was declared. He skipped the usual two-month transition because he was chosen in a special election after the last elected office-holder, Park Geun-hye, was removed by a court and jailed on corruption charges.

Mr. Moon, whose election set up the South's first liberal government in a decade, made a campaign vow to reconsider the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) missile defence system, which his predecessors had authorized the U.S. to build and which China – a country with fraught relations with the new Trump administration in Washington – characterized as a provocation.

Mr. Moon favours 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.

What China is doing

China is North Korea's only major diplomatic ally and economic partner, and the U.S. and others have called on Beijing to use what leverage it has to pressure Pyongyang into curbing its nuclear tests and missile launches. For now, China has called for a return to multi-sided talks that ended in a stalemate in 2009, during the rule of North Korea's previous leader, Kim Jong-il. But North Korea has repeatedly ignored China's calls for denuclearization and other steps to calm tensions on the Korean Peninsula, and relations between the neighbouring nations are believed to have sunk to their lowest level in years. Pyongyang seems to have calculated that Beijing's fears of a collapse of Kim Jong-un's hard-line communist regime override any such snubs.

Mr. Trump has expressed some impatience that China is not doing enough to rein in North Korea, using his Twitter feed to goad Beijing into doing more. Mr. Trump took a more conciliatory tone at a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping at July's G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany. The week after the summit, China hit back in unusually strong terms at expectations that it can fix the Korean dilemma, urging a halt to what it called the "China responsibility theory."


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