North Korea Could Have 40 Nuclear Warheads By 2020, Arms Watchdog Says


North Korea is continuing to expand its nuclear arsenal despite ongoing—though currently stalled—discussions with the U.S. on disarmament, according to a global arms watchdog.

Dan Smith, the director of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, said Monday that Kim Jong Un could have between 30 and 40 nuclear weapons by 2020. This represents a significant increase on the country’s 2019 estimated total of between 20 and 30 warheads, made in an SIPRI report in June 2018.

Smith made his prediction while speaking with reporters at the residence of the Swedish ambassador to South Korea in Seoul, The Chosun Ilbo newspaper reported. The arms expert suggested that the process of denuclearization was a complex one, made more so by the political nature of the project.

North Korea has not tested a nuclear weapon or ballistic missile since it began rapprochement with the U.S. in early 2018. A rapid de-escalation in tensions followed, with Kim and President Donald Trump eventually meeting for a historic summit in Singapore in June.

The infographic below, provided by Statista, shows the locations of North Korea’s nuclear infrastructure, as of March 2019.

North Korea’s nuclear infrastructure.

At the close of the meeting, the two leaders signed a vague agreement committing both to denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. The document, though touted by Trump and his supporters as a significant foreign policy achievement, set out no detail as to how or timeline as to when this would be achieved.

Progress has been elusive, despite two more meetings between the two leaders. North Korea watchers have suggested that, despite the highly-publicized destruction of the country’s nuclear test site, Kim’s regime has continued nuclear weapon research and production.

Talks are currently once again stalled. According to anonymous reports in South Korean newspapers this week, Kim has sought to break the deadlock—or simply continue to stroke Trump’s ego—by inviting the president to visit him in Pyongyang. Trump said last month he thinks the two men will meet again, but U.S. officials have not said any third summit is being planned.

People watch a news report on North Korea’s first hydrogen bomb test at a railroad station in Seoul, South Korea, on January 6, 2016.
JUNG YEON-JE/AFP/Getty Images/Getty

The vagueness of the denuclearization commitment has both hamstrung the project and allowed it to continue, despite the lack of progress. Smith suggested Monday that the term had not even been defined. “The definition of denuclearization is a big thing to be worked out,” he said, adding that the term has both technical and political significance.

The eventual definition will greatly influence the chance of success. Experts have warned that Kim is unlikely to ever give up his nuclear weapons, considering the leverage they offer and the time, money and diplomatic capital spent to produce them. Whether this fits with the U.S. concept of denuclearization remains to be seen.

Though South Korean opinion is a key consideration and the country’s role as a mediator useful, Smith suggested that the key to progress on denuclearization ultimately lies with Washington. “The definitive key to unlock the problems does not lie in South Korea’s hands. It lies much more in American hands,” he said.


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