Fast Facts - North Korea’s Current and Future Nuclear Weapons Capabilities

by David Albright

January 15, 2003

Fast FactsCurrent and Future Weapon Stocks2002 Images
  • North Korea may have one or two nuclear weapons.

  • North Korea possesses enough plutonium in spent fuel to make about five nuclear weapons. Because this plutonium is in spent fuel, it cannot be used in its current form to make nuclear weapons. North Korea could separate all this plutonium into a form suitable for use in nuclear weapons in six months, or by the end of June 2003. It could separate its first bomb’s worth of plutonium by the end of February.

  • North Korea could restart its 5 megawatt reactor at Yongbyon by February 2003. This reactor would need to operate for almost a year to make enough plutonium for a nuclear weapon. After cooling the spent fuel for a few months, North Korea could finish processing this fuel in about five months. Thus, North Korea may need a year and a half to produce and separate another bomb’s worth of plutonium. North Korea, however, may decide to keep the fuel in the reactor longer to produce more plutonium for nuclear weapons in this core.

  • North Korea may finish two larger reactors over the next several years that combined could produce enough plutonium for about 55 nuclear weapons per year.

  • North Korea could finish a uranium enrichment plant in the next few years that could make enough highly enriched uranium for 2-3 nuclear weapons per year. Possession of highly enriched uranium could enable North Korea to build thermonuclear weapons.

  • If unchecked, North Korea could have 5-7 nuclear weapons by the middle of 2003. Such a nuclear arsenal is viewed as being the minimal size to be useful both politically and militarily. This arsenal would be the same size as South Africa’s nuclear arsenal in the late 1980s.

  • North Korea could possess a total of 8-10 nuclear weapons by the end of 2005. The projected growth in North Korea’s arsenal after the middle of 2003 is slow because the larger reactors and the uranium enrichment plant are not expected to operate until about 2005 or afterwards.

  • North Korea could have over 200 nuclear weapons by the end of 2010. Such an arsenal would be comparable to China’s nuclear arsenal.

Fast FactsCurrent and Future Weapon Stocks2002 Images

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