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North Korea’s Nuclear Futures Project: Technology and Strategy

26 February 2015

Since the end of the Korean War, the United States has grappled with the security challenge posed by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. An increasingly important component of that challenge has been North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and delivery systems. Pyongyang’s quest has stretched out over decades, representing an enormous investment of manpower, resources and money totaling billions of dollars.

While the international community is generally aware of Pyongyang’s programs, largely through the North’s sporadic conduct of nuclear weapons and long-range rocket tests, little recent attention has been focused on the very significant dangers posed by this effort. The international community and media are focused on heading off Iran’s small nuclear weapons program rather than on the disturbing developments on the Korean peninsula. Another reason for the lack of serious attention is the still prevailing view of North Korea as a starving, backwards and isolated country led by a young inexperienced and somewhat comical dictator. That perception was, to some degree, offset by the recent North Korean cyber-attack on Sony Pictures.

The North Korea Nuclear Futures Project,[1] conducted by the US-Korea Institute at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in cooperation with the Center for the Study of WMD at the National Defense University, was established in mid-2014 to examine Pyongyang’s emergence as a small nuclear power. The project, through a series of three workshops in 2014-2015, will analyze how North Korea’s nuclear deterrent and strategy may develop over the next five years, the implications for the United States, the region and the international community and possible policy responses.

The first of three workshops, held in October 2014 was attended by a distinguished group of American experts on weapons technology, North Korea, US nuclear weapons and strategy as well as on the experiences of other small nuclear powers such as Israel, Pakistan, India and China. The meeting analyzed North Korea’s WMD technology and its emerging nuclear strategy looking at where it might be headed by 2020. Given the uncertainties involved in forecasting the future, the workshop developed a range of possible scenarios over the next five years.

This first report of the North Korea’s Nuclear Futures Project provides a summary of findings from the first meeting.[2] It lays out the baseline knowledge of North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs and provides low-end, medium and high-end projections for the DPRK’s nuclear arsenal and missile capabilities by 2020 and begins to explore the political and security challenges these capabilities could pose both to the region and to the United States.

Download the report North Korea’s Nuclear Futures Project: Technology and Strategy,” by Joel S. Wit and Sun Young Ahn.

Find other papers in the North Korea’s Nuclear Futures Series.


[1] This publication results from research supported by the Naval Postgraduate School’s Project on Advanced Systems and Concepts for Countering Weapons of Mass Destruction (PASCC) via Assistance Grant/Agreement No. N00244-14-1-0024 awarded by the NAVSUP Fleet Logistics Center San Diego (NAVSUP FLC San Diego). The views expressed in written materials or publications, and/or made by speakers, moderators, and presenters, do not necessarily reflect the official policies of the Naval Postgraduate School nor does mention of trade names, commercial practices, or organizations imply endorsement by the US Government. This North Korea’s Nuclear Futures Series was also made possible by support from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation.

[2] This summary is based on workshop papers authored by David Albright, John Schilling, Joseph Bermudez and Shane Smith that formed the basis for discussion and comment by other experts at the meeting. The project would also like to thank Olli Heinonen, Michael Elleman and Robert Carlin for their contributions to its work.

Reader Feedback

3 Responses to “North Korea’s Nuclear Futures Project: Technology and Strategy”

  1. Liars N. Fools says:

    Yun Byungse showing up on CNN, and the Koreans trying to get a a Seoul approach working stems in part from a sense of urgency that the five parties’ stress on North Korea making the “correct” strategic choice is not bearing fruit and that the five really do need to get the North to the negotiation table.

    At that point, the problem remains getting the North to give up what it says it will not give up.

  2. Kim Myong Chol says:

    The latest estimate is interesting but too conservative.
    Little unknown is that North Korea had morphed into a de facto nuclear weapons state with ICBM capabilitywell before the Americans were aware.
    It acquired not less than 300 kg of weapons-grade plutonium far before the nuclear crisis erupted pitting the US against the US.
    North Korea carried out at least five nuclear tests without attracting American attention.
    A prototype ICBM was made ready by the end of 1980s. Long-range North Korean rockets flew over Japan in 1993 and 1998. In the 1993 tests, one missile splashed down off Hawaii and the other off Guam.
    Kim Jong Un views nuclear war with the aggressor US unavoidable, for which his country is much better geared than America in terms of access to underground hardened shelter and mass evacuation.
    In renewed hostilities, the Lower Fortyeight will be the ideal testing site for the North Korean thermonuclear warheads

  3. Mark says:

    The report will be compelling. It’s true Iran’s nuclear program has taken front seat with the ongoing negotiations. The failure of the Agreed Framework negotiated in 1994 between former President Jimmy Carter and North Korea’s founder Kim Il Song can be attributed to several factors. The untimely death of Kim Il Song of that year prevented proper implementation of the mechanisms required to avert development of a nuclear weapons program. His death and political circumstances in the US did not allow for the construction of a soft water nuclear power plant promised under the terms of the deal. The axis of evil policy embraced under the Bush Administration may have pushed Kim Jong Il to go forward with a weaponization program. It may have happened anyway we may never know. The current situation necessitates a test moratorium or outright ban, but the terms set out by N Korea make this unacceptable at this time. Engagement is possible but will require patience and cooperation among both Koreas and the immediate neighbors, as well as the US and our trading partners in the Pacific. The stakes are high but the benefits of engagement and increased economic and political contacts make the effort worthwhile.

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Credit for photo of young North Korean girl: T.M. All rights reserved, used with permission.