October 1991

Chapter 7


The Nuclear Question

Concern is growing because North Korea may be developing the capability to produce nuclear weapons. In the late 1960s, it received a small reactor from the Soviets and established a nuclear research center just north of Pyongyang, at Yongbyon. Recent evidence has indicated the facility is expanding to process materials for nuclear weapons; also, it could be testing high explosives, yet another indicator of an ongoing nuclear weapon program.

North Korea signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in late 1985, but it has not signed the safeguards and inspection agreement for the International Atomic Energy Agency. The Agency granted an 18-month extension to the normal 18 months necessary to administer and sign such agreements. Although the time limit has passed, after much discussion and many questions regarding the agreement's administration, North Korea has yet to sign.

The degree of Pyongyang's technical competence in nuclear weapon development cannot be determined. The North depends somewhat on outside sources for equipment and technology. If North Korea overcomes these difficulties, Pyongyang will have some dangerous options; it could employ nuclear weapons during war on the peninsula, or it could export nuclear weapons or technology to other unstable countries or regions.

Chemical Weapons

North Korea is capable of producing and employing chemical weapons that virtually all the fire support systems in its inventory could deliver, including most of its artillery pieces, multiple rocket launchers (including those mounted on CHAHO-type boats), and mortars. Some bombs the Air Force employs also could deliver chemical agents, as could the FROG or the SCUD missile.

North Korea has at least eight industrial facilities that can produce chemical agents; however, the production rate and types of munitions are uncertain. North Korea has the capability to produce nerve gas, blood agents, and the mustard-gas family of chemical weapons. Some estimates of chemical stockpiles run as high as 250 metric tons.

Chemicals could increase the impact of a surprise attack. If the North should use this option, it would have an advantage over forward-deployed South Korean and US forces. Nonpersistent chemical agents also could be used to break through defensive lines or hinder a South Korean counterattack's momentum. Persistent chemical agents could be used against fixed targets in the rear areas, such as command and control elements, major lines of communications, or logistic depots. Not only do these weapons enhance North Korea's offensive capabilities, but this chemical capability could deter South Korea or the United States from using chemicals during hostilities.

North Korea has chemical defense units organic to their combat units down to regiment level. For example, a forward Army Corps has its own dedicated chemical defense battalion, but a regimental unit has a chemical defense platoon. These units have decontamination equipment and detection systems. Their missions include training personnel to use chemical protective gear and detecting chemical agents. Army personnel are equipped with protective masks and suits.

Chemical training and exercises have increased consistently over the years --- even civilians receive training. North Korea is aware that chemical weapons could be used during a conflict.

Biological Weapons

Biological warfare has not received the same attention as chemical or nuclear warfare. This could be because North Korea lacks the technical expertise or because the difficulty in controlling biological warfare makes it a less desirable option. North Korea realizes that biological weapons are as dangerous to its own forces as they are to South Korean or US forces, and the North's limited medical services would make the agents more lethal. Therefore, using biological agents is not a likely option. However, if North Korea did choose to employ biological weapons, it probably could use agents like anthrax, plague, or yellow fever against water and food supplies in the South's rear area.

Indigenous Weapon Production

Since the mid-1980s, North Korea has produced, deployed, and exported a SCUD-type, mobile surface-to-surface missile. From deployment locations near the Demilitarized Zone, SCUD-type missiles can target over two-thirds of South Korea. North Korea probably deploys the missiles in brigade-sized units of 12 to 18 launchers.

The SCUD-type missile is not very accurate and would be used against large, soft, area targets. The Soviet SCUD can be armed with nuclear, chemical, or conventional high-explosive weapons.

North Korea's capability to produce a SCUD-type missile not only affects the power balance on the peninsula but also affects other regions. North Korea exports SCUDS for hard currency or oil. This old but reliable system is operational in the armed forces of the USSR, many East European and Middle Eastern countries.

Continued ballistic missile technology and production development could provide Pyongyang with a system capable of threatening other countries in Northeast Asia.


Kim Chong-il emerged as the successor to his father, Kim Il-song, at the 6th Party Congress of the Korean Workers' Party in October 1980. Currently, he ranks second in the three-man Standing Committee of the Politburo and second in the party Secretariat and the Military Affairs Committee. He is the only individual, other than his father, to hold a position in the three pivotal power organs of the party. In May 1990, the Supreme People's Assembly appointed Kim Chong-il the first vice chairman of the National Defense Commission.

The younger Kim has been in charge of day-to-day domestic affairs for several years. There is speculation that the succession may take place in 1992 when the senior Kim is 80 years old. However, if this succession takes place, it is not known how long he might maintain power or how it will impact on the North's political, economic, and military situation.