This IISS Strategic Dossier provides a detailed and objective assessment of North Korea’s nuclear, chemical, biological and missile programmes.

North Korea’s nuclear, missile and other asymmetric military capabilities present grave challenges to regional security. Pyongyang’s propensity to export its weapons also threatens the global non-proliferation regime. Despite economic impoverishment and an inability to feed its people, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea remains heavily armed and ready to fire first. Its military provocations in 2010 demonstrated the potential for resumed conflict on the Korean Peninsula. This IISS Strategic Dossier provides a detailed and objective assessment of North Korea’s nuclear, chemical, biological and missile programmes. It is also broad in scope, addressing North Korea’s conventional forces; internal dynamics amidst an unfolding dynastic succession; non-military security threats, including state criminality, human rights abuses and refugee issues; and unification scenarios for the peninsula. The Dossier is intended to assist public understanding of the security challenges posed by North Korea and to contribute to the debate on the best policy responses.

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  • Chapter One: North Korean Domestic Dynamics

    The threats that North Korea presents to the outside world are inextricably linked to its domestic situation.The contradictions in the nation’s political and economic structures and the regime’s overriding goal of self-preservation restrict its ability to grapple with internal economic pressures and a towering imbalance with South Korea inmost areas of endeavour. Pyongyang’s reflexive militaristic response is unlikely to change as the nation faces the uncertainties of leadership change. Power...
  • Chapter Two: Non-military Security Challenges Posed by North Korea

    Pyongyang’s military threats have long been the object of scrutiny, but North Korean behaviours in other, no less challenging areas, are worthy of similar attention. This chapter thus endeavours to extend the net assessment by moving beyond directly military matters to other ways in which the Kim regime not only falls far short of international norms, but also directly or indirectly imperils the security of others. One category of non-military threats...
  • Chapter Three: The Conventional Military Balance on the Korean Peninsula

    The modern political history of the Korean Peninsula is shaped by the legacy of the 1950–53 Korean War. This bitter and costly conflict ended in military stalemate, with North and South Korea continuing to be divided roughly along the 38th parallel.1 Subsequently, North Korea amassed large and formidable conventional military forces, which are mainly forward-deployed near the Demilitarised Zone (DMZ). Though equally well suited for defence, these forces are seemingly...
  • Chapter Four: Disarmament Diplomacy with North Korea

    During the past 30 years, several diplomatic approaches have been employed to address North Korea’s development of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles. In the 1980s, the US first led efforts to use pressures and inducements to convince North Korea to adhere to the 1968 Treaty on the Non-proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, or NPT) and accept International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspection of its nuclear facilities and...
  • Chapter Five: North Korea’s Nuclear Weapons Programme

    North Korea’s nuclear efforts began many decades ago. While the declared aspects of the programme have occasionally been static or frozen for periods of time, there has been a persistent and long-standing drive to obtain nuclear weapons, whether through the plutonium or uranium routes. Between 1959 and 1980, the country’s nuclear programme was primarily focused on basic training and research. North Korea relied on assistance from the Soviet Union, which...
  • Chapter Six: North Korea’s Ballistic Missile Programmes

    International concerns about North Korean missile proliferation go back three decades. Since then the nation has established one of the world’s largest ballistic-missile arsenals, exported such missiles in large numbers to many countries, and conducted provocative tests of longer-range systems and space launchers that could be converted into long-range missiles. More worrying, North Korea could mate nuclear warheads with its missiles to threaten South Korea, Japan or the United States. In...
  • Chapter Seven: North Korea’s Chemical and Biological Weapons Programmes

    Deciphering the chemical and biological weapons capabilities of any country is a challenge. Chemical weapons (CW) programmes are difficult to trace because many chemical facilities are potentially dual-use; these can have legitimate peaceful purposes, but are relatively easy to convert to military use. This is also true for biological weapons (BW) programmes, except that BW facilities are even easier to conceal. With regard to North Korea, assessments are especially difficult...
  • Chapter Eight: Onward Proliferation from North Korea

    Pyongyang’s involvement in the illicit trafficking of a broad range of goods, including the most dangerous technologies, poses security threats to nations far beyond North Korea’s immediate neighbours. Of particular concern are North Korea’s missile sales and the risk that it would transfer nuclear weapons technology to other rogue states or terrorists.1 This concern is not fanciful. In April 2003, during talks with the US and China, a North Korean...
  • Chapter Nine: Korean Reunification: Conditions, Dynamics and Challenges

    The immediate and urgent challenges posed by North Korea are formidable. On the military front, these include two nuclear programmes, both currently unchecked; chemical and possibly biological weapons, never yet formally addressed; and well-known missile activities. For this linked trio of weapons programmes, the threat is not just direct but may extend also to onward proliferation. Conventional forces include artillery and submarine capabilities whose menace, since the 2010 sinking of...
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North Korean Security Challenges

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North Korean Security Challenges

A press release for the launch of this Strategic Dossier is available here.

A press statement for the launch of this Strategic Dossier is available here.

Strategic Dossiers

Harnessing the Institute's technical expertise to present detailed information on the key strategic issues.