North Korea could have around 60 nuclear weapons, according to analysts.
North Korea ‘appears’ to have restarted a nuclear reactor, according to the United Nations’ nuclear watchdog, raising concerns that the country is expanding its nuclear programme.
The exact nuclear capacity of North Korea, one of the most hermetic countries on earth, remains unclear. The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA)’s inspectors were expelled from the country in 2009. However, the United States Army said last year that Pyongyang could have 20 to 60 nuclear bombs, and be capable of manufacturing 6 new ones.
North Korea would become just one of nine states including India, Israel, Pakistan, China, France, the United Kingdom, Russia and the US that has nuclear weapons.
So then why is North Korea’s programme raising alarms?
Producing atomic weapons under no international watch
Only five countries are officially recognised as a “nuclear-weapon state” under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT): China, France, Russia, United Kingdom, and the United States. North Korea withdrew from the treaty in 2003.
Today, the United States and Russia each deploy roughly 1,350 strategic warheads on several hundred bombers and missiles - a significantly higher number than what North Korea is suspected of having.
But those countries recognised in the treaty are not supposed to build and maintain such weapons in perpetuity.
Even though North Korea ranks among the poorest countries in the world, it spends nearly a quarter of its gross domestic product (GDP) on military - that’s more than 170 other countries that are tracked by the United States.
Remaining a self declared nuclear weapon state, North Korea’s military activities remain unchecked by international entities and not tested for safety.
The IAEA, which watches Pyongyang from afar through satellite images, said a new nuclear testing appeared to have begun, and its indications are “deeply troubling.”
“[North Korea’s] nuclear activities continue to be a cause for serious concern. Since early July 2021, there have been indications, including the discharge of cooling water, consistent with the operation,” the report (PDF) said about the reactor at Yongbyon nuclear complex, which is at the heart of North Korea's nuclear programme.
The concerns centre around the possibility that the reactor is likely producing atomic weapons, the deadliest armament in the world.
The country’s 5-megawatt (MW) reactor is capable of producing weapons-grade plutonium, and more plutonium could help North Korea make smaller nuclear weapons, David Albright, president of the Institute for Science and International Security told Reuters.
Supreme Leader of North Korea Kim Jong Un in January revealed plans to modernise its nuclear technology with a focus on miniaturised nuclear weapons and submarines.
Far reaching nuclear missiles, far reaching consequences
Smaller nuclear weapons would mean they could fit on ballistic missiles that the US and its Asian ally, South Korea, see as a grave security threat.
In July and November 2017, the North Korean regime tested its intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM), each capable of carrying a large nuclear warhead that could travel as far as 10,000 km.
But the country’s unchecked nuclear activities may already be having other far reaching consequences through a third country benefiting from its nuclear capacity.
Syria, another widely sanctioned country, for example, is known to have had nuclear cooperation with the country since as early as 1997.
In 2007, Israel carried out an airstrike in Syria on a building that was said to be a replica of North Korea’s Yongbyon nuclear reactor, killing a number of North Korean technicians.
Syria's nuclear relationship with North Korea, however, expanded to the chemical weapons trade during the war that began in 2011.
On April 4, 2017, an attack single handedly killed almost 100 people in Syria’s Khan Shaykhun, a town in southern Idlib.
The Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OCPW) confirmed suspicions of the use of the internationally banned chemical weapon Sarin’s use in the attack while evidence gathered on has built one of the strongest cases against the Syrian regime leader Bashar al Assad.
The international chemical weapons watchdog OPCW in July this year said its investigations revealed that in 16 other instances of chemical weapons were likely or definitely used in Syria. The West mainly accuses the Syrian regime of being behind the attacks, while the UN accuses North Korea of selling chemical weapon supplies to Syria.
Iran, Egypt, Libya, Pakistan and Yemen are also among the countries that have been involved in a nuclear or missile trade with Pyongyang.
After decades of denuclearisation talks, the leadership of the country sees its nuclear programme as essential to its regime’s survival and uses its nuclear power to push for relief of international sanctions by the UN Security Council and the US.