22 November 2021

TRENDS Research and Advisory issued a new study (in English) titled “North Korea’s Evolving Nuclear Force: Implications for Peace and Security on the Korean Peninsula”, written by Ankit Panda, a Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

The study states that North Korea’s nuclear forces continue to increase in size and sophistication, and that at the Eighth Party Congress of the Workers’ Party of Korea, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un delivered a report outlining a wide-ranging set of military modernization objectives, including ambitious new delivery systems for nuclear weapons.

It reveals that in the months since Kim’s speech, a new missile testing campaign has kicked off. A single test in March 2021 was followed by a near six-month pause, but September and October 2021 have marked two of the most remarkable months for missile tests in North Korean history. Never before has such a variety of new weapon types been tested in such rapid succession in North Korea.

The study says that three themes permeate recent North Korea missile testing. First, North Korea is keeping up – directly and indirectly – with new missile capabilities under development in South Korea. Many of these South Korean capabilities are, in turn, responses to advances in North Korean capabilities in the last decades. This inter-Korean arms race shows no signs of abating. Second, North Korea is focused on stressing and defeating U.S. and allied missile defense systems in Northeast Asia. Many of its missile systems tested since 2019 exhibit features that may augment penetrability against missile defenses. Third, North Korea is seeking to improve both the survivability and responsiveness of its nuclear delivery systems. This is both to better withstand attempts at pre-emption by the United States and its allies, and to complicate planning and intelligence in peacetime for its adversaries.

The study examines in details the newly demonstrated North Korean capabilities in 2021 and their implications for security on the Korean Peninsula.

It argues that North Korea may be hesitant to cross the perceived ‘red line’ of intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) testing given sensitivities in Beijing and, to a lesser degree, in Moscow. However, the primary motivating factor for this year’s spate of testing concerns modernization and the pursuit of a more effective and capable nuclear deterrent; and Kim Jung UN appears committed to this end at all costs for the moment.

The study concludes that North Korea’s ongoing weapon-testing campaign is resulting in meaningful qualitative advances. This is worrying for policymakers in the United States and in the region.