Skip to main content

How close is North Korea to a nuclear missile?

By Kevin Voigt, CNN
updated 9:22 AM EST, Tue February 12, 2013
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is seen walking with a cane in this image released Thursday, October 30, by the state-run Korean Central News Agency. Kim, who recently disappeared from public view for about six weeks, <a href='http://www.cnn.com/2014/10/28/world/asia/kim-jong-un-cyst/index.html'>had a cyst removed</a> from his right ankle, a lawmaker told CNN. North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is seen walking with a cane in this image released Thursday, October 30, by the state-run Korean Central News Agency. Kim, who recently disappeared from public view for about six weeks, had a cyst removed from his right ankle, a lawmaker told CNN.
HIDE CAPTION
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
Kim Jong Un and North Korea's military
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
25
26
27
28
29
30
31
32
33
34
35
36
37
38
39
40
41
42
43
44
45
46
47
48
49
50
51
52
53
54
55
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • North Korea says it carried out an underground nuclear test Tuesday
  • It is the third nuclear test Pyongyang has carried out since 2006
  • It comes after new U.N. sanctions for North Korea's December satellite launch
  • Experts say it's unknown how close the North is to being able to launch a nuclear warhead

(CNN) -- North Korea's latest nuclear test, coming on the heels of December's successful satellite launch, suggests that Pyongyang is moving forward toward developing a nuclear warhead and a deliverable missile system, experts say. The question remains: How close is it?

The answer, like the cloistered "hermit kingdom," remains largely a mystery, as does much of its nuclear program.

"It's a question over the delivery system and the reliability of those systems," said Daniel Pinkston, senior analyst for the International Crisis Group covering Northeast Asia. "That is essentially unknown, or known by a few people inside North Korea."

South Korean rocket successfully puts satellite in orbit

A 2009 report by International Crisis Group suggests that North Korea "probably has somewhere between six and twelve nuclear weapons, or at least explosive devices," but notes that experts are divided on whether any of these are now usable as warheads -- small enough to be mounted on missiles and durable enough to withstand the hazards of flight.

North Korea prepares for nuke test
North Korea move in 'defiance' of U.N.?
North Korea's threats annoy China
Why South Korea's rocket launch matters

"It's pretty clear that these are advanced technologies and the systems present a number of engineering challenges -- and to master these technologies requires a number of tests," Pinkston said.

North Korea on Google Maps: Monuments, nuclear complex, gulags

In December, on the first anniversary of the death of its former leader Kim Jong Il, North Korea successfully launched a three-stage rocket that put the satellite Shining Star-3 into orbit. The launch also signaled that the North's long-range missile program now puts the United States within reach.

Last month, the United Nations Security Council unanimously passed a resolution that strengthened sanctions against the North in response to the December rocket launch. Declaring sanctions to be tantamount to "a declaration of war," North Korea threatened further missile and nuclear tests, which it said are a new phase of confrontation with the United States.

For the U.N. and North Korea: Game on

Tuesday's underground nuclear test is North Korea's third, following tests in 2009 and 2006. The test, "probably" conducted in the vicinity of P'unggye, yielded "several kilotons," according to assessments cited by the U.S. director of national intelligence.

Koreas in 2013: Watch the generational politics

Estimates of the size, or yield, of the 2009 nuclear test range from 2.5 kilotons to 6 kilotons, Pinkston said. By comparison, the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima had a yield of 16 kilotons.

While the specter of a North Korea able to send nuclear-tipped missiles is worrisome, equally troublesome to the international community is Pyongyang's atomic technology fueling the black market for weapons.

"If its clandestine uranium-enrichment program has made strides, Pyongyang could demonstrate that it will gain access to a far larger pool of fissile material than simply its limited supply of weapons-grade plutonium," wrote Patrick M. Cronin, an Asia expert at the Center for New American Security, in a CNN op-ed. "A larger pool of fissile material is a dual threat: As a vital part of an expanded nuclear weapon program and as a commodity to be sold on the black market."

Timeline: North Korea's rocket-fueled obsession

CNN's Jethro Mullen contributed to this report.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 8:25 PM EDT, Mon October 13, 2014
North Korea has released photos that claim to show leader Kim Jong Un, whose absence for over a month has raised speculation.
updated 1:43 AM EDT, Sat October 11, 2014
Despite tense relations, China benefits from Kim Jong Un's rule in North Korea. David McKenzie explains.
updated 4:51 AM EDT, Mon September 15, 2014
North Korea has "the world's most advantageous human rights system," the country declares.
updated 9:35 PM EDT, Mon September 1, 2014
Three Americans detained in North Korea spoke out about their conditions Monday in an exclusive interview with CNN.
updated 6:41 AM EDT, Tue May 28, 2013
Beijing-based tour company posts exclusive photos and video from inspection visit.
updated 9:37 PM EDT, Sat August 30, 2014
CNN's Will Ripley makes a rare live report from reclusive North Korea.
updated 4:52 AM EDT, Mon September 1, 2014
The crowd cheers as the stars make their way to the ring for first pro-wrestling bout North Korea has seen in almost 20 years.
updated 9:36 AM EDT, Wed March 27, 2013
A German photographer returns from the closed country with unlikely pictures of everyday residents.
updated 8:16 AM EST, Mon December 2, 2013
Visiting the DPRK is easy these days, so long as you don't forget to play by their rules.
updated 10:45 AM EDT, Tue September 2, 2014
CNN's Will Ripley is given a rare look inside North Korea and tours Kim Jong Un's pet project, a waterpark.
updated 8:21 AM EDT, Mon August 18, 2014
North Korea rejected an invitation to the Pope's Mass in Seoul. CNN's Paula Hancocks reports.
updated 6:25 PM EDT, Wed July 2, 2014
As diplomats discuss a string of unsolved kidnappings of Japanese citizens by North Korea, the families of those abducted anxiously wait.
updated 7:44 PM EDT, Thu June 5, 2014
New signs show Russia and North Korea are developing a closer relationship.
updated 8:12 PM EDT, Wed May 21, 2014
Photographer Eric Lafforgue visited North Korea and shares his inside look at the most isolated country in the world.
updated 9:25 PM EDT, Mon May 12, 2014
Many North Koreans listen to illegal broadcasts on homemade radios, some are convinced to defect.
updated 3:26 PM EDT, Thu May 8, 2014
Jang Jin-Sung, a North Korean defector and former regime insider, speaks with CNN's Christiane Amanpour.
ADVERTISEMENT