North Korean Nuclear Arsenal Nearly Doubled Since 2017, Report Says

North Korea can deploy 45 nuclear weapons and is working to increase arsenal

A North Korea military parade / Getty Images
April 10, 2023

North Korea's nuclear arsenal has increased by 75 percent since 2017, according to a watchdog group.

North Korea can deploy around 45 nuclear weapons and is working to increase the destructive power of its arsenal, with an average rate of about 6 new nuclear weapons per year through 2022, according to a report published Monday by the Institute for Science and International Security think tank.

The latest estimates come just days after North Korea tested a nuclear-capable underwater drone, the second such test in as many weeks. Pyongyang is flexing its nuclear muscle after the United States and South Korea held the largest set of military drills in six years, amplifying regional tensions.

"North Korea is going down a very dangerous path, providing mixed messages on whether its growing arsenal is meant as a deterrent or whether it thinks it can start and win a nuclear war," David Albright, a weapons expert and the founder of the institute, told the Washington Free Beacon. "The North Korean regime must understand that it cannot win a nuclear war no matter how much it thinks its arsenal can grow in the coming years."

Albright's latest findings on North Korea's nuclear program indicate that the country is placing an increased focus on more advanced weapons, rather than the raw number of nuclear warheads. The country "may be choosing to increase the yield of their weapons, which cuts down the number they build," according to Albright.

North Korea could have as many as 96 simple nuclear warheads and up to 63 more advanced thermonuclear weapons that "have the highest explosive yields," according to the report. The varying numbers reflect the difficulty in accurately gauging North Korea's nuclear progress, given the country's efforts to obfuscate details about its program.

"North Korea appears to have the means of increasing both [weapons-grade uranium] and plutonium production, and the number of its nuclear weapons," the report states.

Other estimates "assume an arsenal made out of simple fission weapons, but as North Korea's nuclear weapons program becomes more sophisticated, the estimates must become more sophisticated as well," Albright explained. "I take into account that North Korea may be choosing to increase the yield of their weapons, which cuts down the number they build."

North Korea's nuclear aspirations are likely to complicate American efforts to push back the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Moscow is urging both China and North Korea to join its fight, as President Vladimir Putin attempts to shift the international order to his side.

North Korea last week also cut off its line of communications with South Korea, generating fears that a delicate peace between the neighbors may be breaking down.