The DPRK Nuclear Weaponry: Dyad or Alternative Triad?
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Anastasia Barannikova

PhD in History,
Research Fellow,
Research Laboratory of Spatial Logistics,
ADM Nevelskoy Maritime State University,
Vladivostok, Russia.


Over the last decade DPRK has significantly advanced in mastering nuclear missile technologies. Within a relatively short period of time, nuclear devices of various power have been demonstrated and tested, as well as new nuclear weapon delivery systems — tactical systems, submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), liquid-fueled intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), and finally, solid-fuel ICBMs. The country’s nuclear capabilities are improving both qualitatively and quantitatively. Pyongyang is mass producing the most effective and successfully tested missiles of various ranges, including intercontinental ones. At the moment, according to various estimates, North Korea possesses 50-100 nuclear warheads of varying power and is capable of producing 6-7 bombs every year.[1] According to the forecast of the South Korean Institute for Defense Analysis, by 2030 the DPRK will have 166 warheads, with the prospect of increasing their number to 300.[2] At the same time, the number of nuclear weapons carriers is many times higher than the number of warheads. In addition to dozens of ICBMs, the DPRK has new tactical systems and hundreds of «older» ballistic missiles in service, which will be gradually replaced by new modifications. The increase in the number of nuclear weapons raises the question of their distribution, which is complicated by the fact that the DPRK occupies a relatively small territory and has no military bases abroad. The most effective way to distribute nuclear forces is traditionally considered to be the nuclear triad consisting of land, sea and air components.

Experts, in particular, Artyom Lukin maintain that the DPRK is not capable of creating neither a nuclear triad, nor even a sound dyad (its maritime component).[3] He maintains that the air and sea components are expensive and technologically complex. It is hard to argue with this. Yet, why would a regional nuclear power like the DPRK be necessarily bound to copycat the ‘best practices’ of a global nuclear power like the United States to strive for a ‘classic triad’, especially today? In questioning the DPRK’s ability to create a nuclear triad, Lukin relies on the premise of a classical nuclear triad that includes ICBMs, strategic nuclear submarines with SLBMs, and strategic aviation. The classical triad was chosen by the major nuclear powers to distribute their capabilities back in the 1960s, and this choice was determined by the realities of that time: the Cold War, the tough confrontation for world domination and the arms race between the two major powers — the USSR and the United States. Moreover, nuclear weapons were seen as a means of not only deterring the main adversary, but also of projecting force into the regions of the world where the superpowers had any interests. Hence the choice of nuclear weapons delivery vehicles — strategic aviation and submarines capable of penetrating the enemy’s air and sea space, delivering nuclear charges or simply demonstrating force to the possible enemy. The United States and Russia stick to the ‘classics’ to this day, mainly because it has proven effective in the past. China and India, which are also endeavoring to build the ‘classic triad’, are driven, apparently, by the same geopolitical ambitions. In view of powerful nuclear-armed adversaries, they simply have no other option but to follow suit.

North Korea: The End of Strategic Seclusion?
Artyom L. Lukin
One of the unconditional advantages of the Juche model is that it gives North Korea a high degree of political independence. North Korea is one of the few states in the world with genuine, not nominal, sovereignty. The main disadvantage of North Korean autarky is slow economic development, which has resulted in a massive material gap between the South and the North.

The Pyongyang’s situation is fundamentally different. While their main adversary is indeed the United States, DPRK can relatively safely rely on a very specific set of deterrence means. Favorable geographical location of North Korea is supplemented by friendly relations with China and Russa, the nations that possess the most formidable nuclear capabilities. Besides, the DPRK has so far sought neither global political domination nor military expansion. It is not bound by commitments to protect any other nation under the nuclear umbrella and has no military bases abroad. It’s only natural that against these circumstances, the DPRK can plan its WMD capabilities’ distribution in ways different from the major powers, based on its own geopolitical goals, threat perception, doctrine, theater peculiarities, and even terrain.

The very question of whether the DPRK intends to create a nuclear triad at all is still open. Perhaps it will limit itself to a dyad (land + sea) component or prefer an alternative structure of distribution of its nuclear forces. On the one hand, Kim Jong-un as early as 2016 called for readiness to «launch nuclear strikes against the enemy on land, in the air, at sea, and underwater».[4] This statement may indeed indicate an intention to establish a nuclear triad.

On the other hand, no new information on the air component of the envisioned triad surfaced in the Report from the Eighth Congress of the Workers’ Party of Korea (TPK) with rather detailed plans for the development of the WMD program. Along with improvement of the land-based component of the nuclear weaponry, the tasks of developing a nuclear submarine and an underwater-launched nuclear strategic weapon were set.[5]

With the land-based ICBMs the situation is more or less clear. The DPRK has both the liquid-fueled ‘Hwasong-12’, -14, -15, and -17 ICBMs and the solid-fueled ‘Hwasong-18’, which has undergone a series of tests since April 2023. The latter two ‘Hwasong’ modifications are critically important for the country’s nuclear arsenal. The nation’s leader called the ‘Hwasong-17’ «the world’s strongest strategic weapon,»[6] while the ‘Hwasong-18’ has been termed «a promising centerpiece of the Republic’s strategic forces».[7] ICBM will remain relevant for the DPRK’s strategic defense in the foreseeable future, thanks to its range, mobility (unlike silo-based ICBMs), and subsequent survivability in a potential conflict.

As for the maritime component, the DPRK currently has a successfully tested ‘Pukguksong-3’ SLBM with a range of 1,200 kilometers. In 2020, the ‘Pukguksong-4ㅅ’ SLBM was displayed during a parade, but there is still no information about its testing, as well as the ‘Pukguksong-5ㅅ’ demonstrated in 2021. The range of these SLBMs is unknown, although experts, citing the size and design of the latter SLBM, do not rule out an intercontinental capability[8].

At the same time, despite the task set by the country’s leadership to build a nuclear submarine, there is no information about the progress of construction of a strategic submarine, despite some activity noted at the Sinpo shipyard since October 2022.

In March 2023, the DPRK tested an underwater drone, the ‘Haeil-1’, which cruised over a distance of 600 kilometers and remained underwater for 41 hours before launching a warhead. The KCNA described the drone as an «underwater nuclear strategic weapon» capable of making «a super-scale radioactive tsunami through underwater explosion to destroy naval striking groups and major operational ports of the enemy».[9] A month later, the ‘Haeil-2’ system was tested, which cruised over a distance of 1,000 kilometers underwater in 71 hours. In January 2024, the KCNA reported the testing of the unmanned underwater strike system ‘Haeil-5-23’.[10]

On September 6, 2023, the launching ceremony of the first «tactical nuclear submarine»[11] No. 841 ‘Hero Kim Gun-ok’ was held. This submarine is not equipped with a nuclear propulsion system but can carry nuclear weapons. Experts surmise that the submarines design hints on capacity of 10 missiles, probably ‘Pukguksong’ SLBMs and ‘Hwasal’-family cruise missiles.[12]

Technically, underwater drones of the ‘Haeil’ family can perform some of the functions of submarines and serve as a naval component of the nuclear triad, albeit a tactical one. Yet, DPRK’ ambitions to build nuclear submarines are by no means deniable. Experts note that the tactical attack submarine demonstrated last year, while being a modification of the Romeo-class submarine, is at the same time different from the submarine demonstrated in July 2019, which is considered a strategic submarine project precisely. Thus, there is every reason to believe that the DPRK will continue to work on the development of a nuclear submarine or submarine equipped with long-range nuclear weapons. However, the lack of considerable progress in this area may speak out not merely technological and resource strains, but also the fact that the DPRK may not consider a strategic submarine as the main component of the triad/diad, as, for example, the United States, but considers it only an additional way to ensure the survivability of nuclear weapons in a hypothetical nuclear conflict. It is highly likely that tactical submarines or the ‘Haeil’-like systems quite suffice for the regional level military tasks.

Finally, the DPRK leadership might as well consider the air component of the triad in its classic version impractical. Theoretically, the DPRK could equip its aircraft fleet with nuclear devices. However, this makes no sense against adversaries with such an advanced missile defense system as the United States and its allies in Northeast Asia. Meanwhile, in the United States the role of the strategic bomber has continually been questioned, on the premises of their high costs and low efficiency in comparison which ICBMs and SLBMs: “They are slow and vulnerable to air defenses as well as to surprise attacks on their bases, and they “provide only minimal second-strike capability.””[13]

Russian experts also predict changes in the air component of the classical nuclear triad as technologies such as heavy strike unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) progress[14]. Meanwhile, the DPRK is already working on such systems. In July 2023, during a visit by a delegation from the Defense Ministry of the Russian Federation, the DPRK demonstrated two heavy unmanned aerial vehicles, the ‘Setbyol-4’ and ‘Setbyol-9’, which bear similarities to the U.S. RQ-4 ‘Global Hawk’ and MQ-9 ‘Reaper’ models.

The production of drones is much cheaper than that of airplanes, fuel consumption is lower, and the time spent in flight is not limited by the physical capabilities of the crew. UAVs are more maneuverable, do not require long preparation for launch and are not as visible to missile defense and air defense as aircraft. It is enough to recall how North Korean UAVs successfully penetrated South Korean air defenses in 2022. At the same time, heavy UAVs can carry guided and unguided bombs and missiles, strike at land and sea targets, aim other weapon systems on targets, and so on. Naturally, the ability to equip UAVs will depend on DPRK’s success in miniaturizing nuclear weapons, but it seems to be a matter of time.

By the way, speaking of «nuclear strikes in the air,» the DPRK leadership could mean not only combat aircraft and UAVs, but also delivery of nuclear weapons to high altitudes in order to detonate them and generate an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) capable of disabling communication and life-support systems of infrastructure facilities on the enemy’s territory. Given the DPRK’s efforts to develop its space program, its possession of nuclear weapons of various yields, and its need to deter both nuclear and conventional attacks, EMP may be an attractive and technically feasible option for the DPRK.

Thus, the DPRK is quite capable of creating a nuclear triad, although this triad will differ from the Russian or American ones. One strategic component — ICBMs — is sufficient to deter the most likely adversary. The other components can be tactical and still be able to fulfill their assigned tasks, one of which is to ensure the survivability of a retaliatory strike capability.

The DPRK’s alternative triad can be supplemented by various elements, of which there are also many variants. It could be a triad combining nuclear and non-nuclear weapons (somewhat similar concept was discussed, in particular, in the United States during the Bush administration). The North Korean version could include dual-use systems capable of carrying both nuclear and conventional weapons. It could also be a triad with tactical nuclear weapons. In addition to ICBMs, North Korea has new tactical systems KN-23, -24, and -25 and hundreds of relatively old but repeatedly tested ballistic missiles capable of hitting facilities in the ROK and Japan, including U.S. military bases. Finally, in the face of new threats, the DPRK could incorporate anti-satellite weapons into its NS structure and/or include cyber troops designed to undermine the enemy’s NS command and control systems.

North Korea: The End of Strategic Seclusion?
Artyom L. Lukin
One of the unconditional advantages of the Juche model is that it gives North Korea a high degree of political independence. North Korea is one of the few states in the world with genuine, not nominal, sovereignty. The main disadvantage of North Korean autarky is slow economic development, which has resulted in a massive material gap between the South and the North.

[1] 38 North. 2021. «Estimating North Korea’s Nuclear Stockpiles: An Interview With Siegfried Hecker», 38 North, April 30, 2021. https://www.38north.org/2021/04/estimating-north-koreas-nuclear-stockpiles-an-interview-with-siegfried-hecker/

[2] Park, Y.-H., Lee, S.-G. 2023. «North Korea’s Nuclear Warhead Quantity Estimates and Prospects». Korean Institute for Defense Analysis, January 11, 2023. https://www.kida.re.kr/frt/board/frtNormalBoardDetail.do?sidx=2184&idx=818&depth=2&lang=kr

[3] Lukin, A.L., 2024. North Korea: The End of Strategic Seclusion? Russia in Global Affairs, 22(1), pp. 110–129. DOI: 10.31278/1810-6374-2024-22-1-110-129.

[4] “Kim Jong Un Watches Ballistic Rocket Launch Drill of Strategic Force of KPA,” KCNA, March 11, 2016.

[5] “Great Programme for Struggle Leading Korean-Style Socialist Construction to Fresh Victory. On Report Made by Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un at Eighth Congress of WPK,” KCNA, January 9, 2021

[6] «Respected Comrade Kim Jong Un Guides Test-fire of New-type ICBM of DPRK’s Strategic Forces», KCNA, November 19, 2022

[7] «Respected Comrade Kim Jong Un Guides First Test-Fire of New-Type ICBM Hwasongpho-18 on Spot», KCNA, April 14, 2023

[8] Xu, Tianran «Emerging Capabilities? The Unflown SLBMs of the DPRK», Open Nuclear Network», July 25, 2022. https://opennuclear.org/publication/emerging-capabilities-unflown-slbms-dprk

[9] «Important Weapon Test and Firing Drill Conducted in DPRK». KCNA. March 24, 2023

[10] «Spokesman for Ministry of National Defence of DPRK Issues Press Statement», KCNA, January 19, 2024

[11] «Respected Comrade Kim Jong Un Makes Congratulatory Speech at Ceremony for Launching Newly-Built Submarine», KCNA, September 8, 2023

[12] Sutton, H.I. «North Korea’s New Submarine Carries 10 Nuclear Missiles», Naval News, Accessed 08 September 2023. https://www.navalnews.com/naval-news/2023/09/north-koreas-new-submarine-carries-10-nuclear-missiles/

[13] Watson, Darius E. “Rethinking the US Nuclear Triad.” Strategic Studies Quarterly, vol. 11, no. 4, 2017, pp. 134–50. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/26271637. Accessed 16 Jan. 2024

[14] Stefanovich D.V., and Ernakov A.S. Strategicheskaya avioatsiya skvoz’ epohi: zadachi, opasnosti i resheniya [Strategic Aviation through the Ages: Challenges, Dangers and Solutions]. Rossiya v global’noi politike. 2023, 21(6). PP. 129–145.