Article in Politics / International / Asia & Pacific Rim
North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic-missile programmes are provoking other countries in the region, particularly Japan and South Korea, to consider whether they should acquire nuclear weapons, the so-called domino effect.

As North Korea’s leader. Kim Jong Il, prepares to hand over power to his youngest son, Kim Jong Un, the country is enhancing its nuclear-weapon capabilities. It has, it is said, resumed the construction of its nuclear facilities at Yongbyon to produce more plutonium that could be used in nuclear weapons. On October 20 2010, United States and South Korean intelligence agencies observed activities at North Korea’s nuclear test site near the village of P’unggye-yok, Kilju which may be preparations for another nuclear test - North Korea’s third. And North Korea is reportedly actively developing its programme to produce highly-enriched uranium, which could be used to fabricate nuclear weapons.

Winston Churchill once famously described the former Soviet Union as “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma”. This description can be well applied to today’s North Korea, an unusually isolated, closed and secretive country. Reliable publicly available information about its nuclear programme has always been hard to find. Most is released by American intelligence agencies. To assess North Korea’s nuclear-weapon capability, the world has relied on remote monitoring, information from defectors, and inspections conducted by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) between 1992 and 2003 when North Korea was a Party to the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). There is, therefore, considerable uncertainty about North Korea’s nuclear-weapon programme.

On 5 November 2010, in a speech at Christchurch, New Zealand, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton once again expressed concerns about the nuclear activities of North Korea (1). She particularly mentioned the problem of the transfer of technology. "The United States was deeply concerned about the nuclear scientist behind Pakistan's program selling his expertise to a number of countries, including North Korea," she said, "We follow constantly reports of other countries trying to do business with North Korea to get their own foot in the door on nuclear weapons”.

Hilary Clinton gave as an example the seizure of a computer in Switzerland in 2007 that contained a design of a nuclear weapon from the black-market network of A.Q. Khan, the nuclear scientist who headed up Pakistan’s nuclear-weapon programme. Khan reportedly provided nuclear-weapon technology to North Korea, among a number of other countries, in exchange for missile technology. The design mentioned by Hilary Clinton was of one that China gave Pakistan in the early 1980s. She went on to say: "It's an intensely difficult environment where knowledge cannot be contained, where people who have information or expertise can go into the marketplace and sell it".

North Korea’s Nuclear-Weapon Programme


Public Domain

Map of the North Korean nuclear test of October 9, 2006. The red marker indicates the estimated location of the test (41.311°N, 129.114°E).

On 9 October 2006, North Korea conducted its first test of a nuclear explosive. The device was set off underground at a test site near the village of P’unggye-yok, Kilju. Although it was probably only a partial success, it showed beyond doubt that North Korea has a nuclear-weapon capability. The explosive yield of the test was surprisingly low – the equivalent of the explosion of between 500 and 1,000 tonnes of TNT. Expectations were that the yield would be much greater – about 20,000 tonnes (20 kilotons). The low yield led many experts to suggest that the explosion was a ’fizzle’ in which the detonation was inefficient, resulting in less than a full chain reaction and the release of less explosive power than predicted (2).

On 25 May 2009, North Korea conducted its second underground nuclear test a few kilometers from its 2006 test. Following the test North Korea announces that “the results of the test helped satisfactorily settle the scientific and technological problems arising in furthering increasing the power of nuclear weapons and steadily developing nuclear technology.” Estimates of the explosive yield of the test, based on seismic data recorded at monitoring stations around the world, range from 2-7 kilotons, which is about 5 times stronger than the 2006 test. The US government estimated the yield as ‘approximately a few kilotons’. The 2009 test was apparently somewhat more successful than the 2006 test.

It is generally assumed that that the two nuclear devices were fabricated using plutonium rather than highly-enriched uranium as the fissile material. The estimated yields of both the 2006 and 2009 tests were much lower than the yields of the first nuclear tests by all the other nuclear-weapon countries.

North Korea’s Current Nuclear Activities

On 12 June 2009, the United Nations Security Council unanimously condemned North Korea for conducting its second nuclear test and adopted Resolution 1874, which expanded sanctions against Pyongyang. On the next day, the North Korean Foreign Ministry issued a statement outlining “countermeasures” Pyongyang would take in response to Resolution 1874. The measures included using all newly separated plutonium from the spent fuel from its Yongbyon nuclear reactor for nuclear weapons and continuing to develop a uranium-enrichment capability (3).

On 26 June 2008, North Korea formally declared that it held a stock of 30.8 kilograms of separated plutonium. In 2009, North Korea reprocessed the rest of the fuel rods from its 5-megawatt nuclear reactor in Yongbyon, north of its capital, Pyongyang. As of December 2009, North Korea was estimated to have a plutonium stockpile of about 35 kilograms, enough to make at least seven nuclear weapons (4).

But according to Charles Pritchard, a former chief American negotiator with North Korea, in a statement made after a recent five-day trip to the country, there are no signs that North Korea has resumed nuclear activity at the Yongbyon complex, the site where it previously produced weapons-grade plutonium for its nuclear tests (5). He said that the reactor that produced the plutonium “remains shut down, the cooling tower is still destroyed, so at this point, I don't believe there is any additional reprocessing or anything going on" at Yongbyon. Pritchard was Washington's special envoy to North Korea under former President George W. Bush and senior director for Asian affairs under former President Bill Clinton. He now heads the Washington-based Korea Economic Institute.

North Korea has reportedly transferred (sold?) to Syria a nuclear reactor, similar to the 5–megawatt reactor at Yongbyon, suitable for the production of plutonium. On 6 September 2007, Israeli bombers attacked a facility near al-Kibar, Syria presumably because it was thought to be the site for the reported reactor. American and Israeli intelligence sources imply that the facility was, or would become, the first stage of a Syrian nuclear-weapon programme. The truth of this story has yet to be told.

There are fears that North Korea may transfer nuclear materials and technology to nuclear terrorists who would use them to fabricate a nuclear explosive or a dirty bomb. Although the risk of this may be small, international action should be taken to reduce it.

North Korea is suspected of pursuing a programme for enriching uranium for military purposes. North Korea has, in fact, acknowledged that it has such a programme but that it is for civil rather than military purposes, to produce fuel for future nuclear-power reactors. Little information about this programme is publicly available. North Korea’s nuclear activities remain a puzzle.

North Korea’s Ballistic Missiles

North Korean ballistic missiles are perceived as a direct threat to the security of countries in Northeast Asia and other countries, such as those in the Middle East and South Asia. Currently, North Korea is believed to have in its arsenal more than 800 ballistic missiles. In addition, it has exported (sold) ballistic missiles to many countries.

If North Korea continues its ballistic-missile developments it will, in time, be able to threaten the USA. Even though North Korean ballistic missiles are not, on modern standards, very accurate they are still seen as a threat by those countries within their range.

North Korea has been developing ballistic missiles since the 1970s. It first obtained short-range tactical missiles from the Soviet Union in about 1969. In 1976, it obtained its first Scuds from Egypt and, by 1984, was building its own Scud-Bs. It then developed new types of missiles, Scud-Cs and the Nodong.

The versions based on the Scud missiles have ranges of up to 700 kilometres. The Nodong, which reportedly became operational in 1999, has a range of up to 1,500 kilometres. North Korea combined the technologies used in these types of missiles to produce its latest type, the longer-range Taepodong ballistic missiles. The Taepodong-1 reportedly has a range of some 2,900 kilometres (6).

On 5 April 2009, North Korea launched a three-stage Taepodong-2 long-range missile, also called the Unha-2 missile, from its Musudan-ri launch site (7) an event which caused considerable tension, regional and international.

According to the North Korean Committee of Space Technology the aim of the launch was to put an experimental communications satellite, called Kwangmyongsong-2, into space orbit (8). However, the US reported that the first stage of the missile landed in the Sea of Japan and the remaining stages, with the payload fell into the Pacific Ocean.

The South Korean and American governments claimed that the launch was another step in the development of the Taepodong-2 ballistic missile. Theoretically, the Taepodong-2 could have a range of up to 10,000 kilometres (6,200 miles), putting Alaska within its range. The first tests of the Taepodong-2 were conducted in 2006 but they were failures.

After these tests, the UN Security Council passed Resolution 1718, under which North Korea must "not conduct any further nuclear test or launch of a ballistic missile", "suspend all activities related to its ballistic missile programme" and "abandon all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programmes in a complete, verifiable and irreversible manner”. There is no indication that North Korea will obey this Resolution.

Whether or not North Korea can mount a nuclear warhead on a ballistic missile is not known. David Albright, a physicist and nuclear weapons expert who heads the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security, has stated that North Korea is "likely able to build a crude nuclear warhead" for its mid-range missiles that target Japan” (9). But most experts agree that it is likely to be years before North Korea is able to put nuclear warheads on ballistic missiles having sufficient range to target the United States. It will probably need this time to miniaturize its warheads to fit them to long-range ballistic missiles.

The Domino Effect

North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic-missile programmes are provoking other countries in the region, particularly Japan and South Korea, to consider whether they should acquire nuclear weapons, the so-called domino effect. For example, the Japan Times, in an article on 20 April 2009, reported that the former Japanese Finance Minister Shoichi Nakagawa stated, in a speech made at Obihiro, Hokkaido, Japan, that Japan should consider possessing nuclear weapons as a deterrent to a threat from North Korea (10).

The nuclear-weapon tests carried out by Pyongyang in 2006 and 2009 also stimulated some commentators in Japan to argue that Japan should acquire nuclear weapons. Japan has one of the world’s most advanced civil nuclear-technology programmes. It has, therefore, the fissile materials, highly-enriched uranium and plutonium, and the nuclear physicists and engineers needed to produce nuclear weapons in a short time – months rather than years - if it took the political decision to do so.

Japan has a stockpile of civil plutonium that could be used directly in a nuclear-weapon programme. About 400 kilograms of plutonium are in critical assemblies at Tokai-Mura, Ibaraki Prefecture. This plutonium is of the type preferred by nuclear-weapon designers to fabricate the most effective nuclear weapons (11). There is enough of it to produce at least 100 nuclear weapons.

Japan could also use the plutonium produced in its nuclear-power reactors to produce nuclear weapons. It now has a stockpile of civil plutonium (reactor-grade plutonium) totalling more than 43 tonnes; about 20 per cent of the total global stockpile of civil plutonium of about 250 tonnes (12). For an advanced technological country like Japan, reactor-grade plutonium is just as good as weapon-grade plutonium to produce nuclear weapons (13).

Like Japan, South Korea has an advanced civil nuclear programme. It now has 20 nuclear-power reactors in operation and possibly plans to add 20 more over the next 20 or 30 years. It has, therefore, the nuclear material, particularly plutonium, and the expertise to fabricate nuclear weapons in a relatively short time, if it takes the political decision to do so.

The domino effect could spread further than Japan and South Korea. According to a report by the US Congressional Research Service, if Japan acquires nuclear weapons it “could set off an arms race with China, South Korea, and Taiwan. India and/or Pakistan may then feel compelled to further expand or modernize their own nuclear weapons capabilities” (14). The consequences for regional global security would indeed be severe and widespread.


1. Remarks at Christchurch Town Hall Meeting

2. NTI, More North Korean Nuclear Tests "Quite Possible", Says Senior U.S. Official

3. Defiant North Korea to 'weaponise' plutonium, The Independent, 14 June 2009

4. Wade L. Huntley, Bucks for the bang, North Korea’s nuclear program and northeast Asian military spending,

5. No signs of N. Korea nuclear activity: US envoy, The China Post, 7 November 2010

6. Federation of American Scientists, Missiles - North Korea Special Weapons

7. John M. Glionna, North Korea puts long-range missile on launch pad, report says, Los Angeles Times, 1 June 2009.

8. Korean Committee of Space Technology on Satellite Kwangmyongson, 7 May 2009

9. Space War, North Korea could make nuclear warhead for missile delivery, 21 Feb 2007

10.Nakagawa floats sobering option: going nuclear, Kyodo News, 20 April, 2009

11. Tadahiro Katsuta and Tatsujiro Suzuki, Japan’s Spent Fuel and Plutonium Management Challenges, International Panel on Fissile Materials, September 2006,

12. Citizens' Nuclear Information Center (CNIC), MOX and Nuclear Weapons, 2 March 2009.

13. Richard L. Garwin, Reactor-Grade Plutonium Can be Used to Make Powerful and Reliable Nuclear Weapons: Separated plutonium in the fuel cycle must be protected as if it were nuclear weapons, Federation of American Scientists, August 26, 1998.

14. Emma Chanlett-Avery and Mary Beth Nikitin, Japan’s Nuclear Future: Policy Debate, Prospects, and U.S. Interests, Congressional Research Service Report, Washington DC, 19 February 2009. to Shut Down Permanently on December 31, 2017

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About the Author 

Charles F Barnaby
Frank Barnaby, a nuclear physicist, worked at the: Atomic Weapons Research Establishment, Aldermaston (1951-57); University College, London

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