North Korea's nuclear programme: How advanced is it?

  • 6 January 2016
  • From the section Asia
This satellite image provided by Space Imaging Asia shows the Yongbyon Nuclear Center, located north of Pyongyang, North Korea, 13 August 2002 Image copyright AP
Image caption Negotiations over North Korea's nuclear programme have been a stop-start process

North Korea's nuclear programme remains a source of deep concern for the international community. The BBC looks at North Korea's nuclear ambitions and multinational efforts to curtail them despite four nuclear tests.

Has North Korea got the bomb?

Image copyright AFP
Image caption Pyongyang used a three-stage rocket to put a satellite into space in 2012

Technically yes, but not yet the means to deliver it via a missile.

In 2006, 2009, 2013 and 2016, North Korea announced that it had conducted successful nuclear tests - they came after the North was sanctioned by the UN for launching rockets.

Analysts believe the first two tests used plutonium as the fissile material. The North is believed to possess enough weapons-grade plutonium for at least six bombs.

Whether it used plutonium or uranium as the starting material for the 2013 test is unclear.

While these were atomic bomb tests, North Korea said its test in January 2016 was of a hydrogen bomb. Again, the starting material is unclear.

H-bombs use fusion - the merging of atoms - to unleash massive amounts of energy, whereas atomic bombs use nuclear fission, or the splitting of atoms.

However, some experts cast doubt on the H-bomb claim, given the size of the explosion registered.

What do we know about the North's nuclear programme?

The Yongbyon site is thought to be its main nuclear facility. The North has pledged several times to halt operations there and even destroyed the cooling tower in 2008 as part of a disarmament-for-aid deal.

But in March 2013, after a war of words with the US and with new UN sanctions over the North's third nuclear test, it vowed to restart all facilities at Yongbyon.

However, the US never believed Pyongyang was fully disclosing all of its nuclear facilities - a suspicion bolstered when North Korea unveiled a uranium enrichment facility at Yongbyon (purportedly for electricity generation) to US scientist Siegfried Hecker in 2010.

Mr Hecker's 2010 visit and subsequent report remains the most recent and reliable account of the complex.

In April 2015 a US think tank said satellite pictures taken in early 2015 suggested the reactor at Yongbyon may have been restarted. Then in September, state media announced that "normal operation" had started at the production plant.

The January 2016 test was said to have been carried out at the Punggye-ri site.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption North Korea carried a nuclear test in 2009, which resulted in seismic waves shown here in Seoul
Image copyright Reuters
Image caption The US and North Korea aimed at restarting denuclearisation talks before Kim Jong-il, right, died

Both the US and South Korea have also said that they believed the North had additional sites linked to a uranium-enrichment programme.

A test based on a uranium device would spell new dangers for monitoring and proliferation because weapons-grade plutonium enrichment happens in large facilities that are easier to spot.

Uranium enrichment uses many, possibly small, centrifuges that can be hidden away. While North Korea has depleted its stocks of "reactor-grade" plutonium needed to make the weapons-grade variety, the country has plentiful reserves of uranium ore.

What has the global community done about the programme?

Image copyright AFP
Image caption The United Nations tightened sanctions against North Korea following its third nuclear test

Multiple rounds of negotiations have taken place between the North, the US, Russia, China, Japan and South Korea aimed at persuading Pyongyang to give up its nuclear ambitions. But none of this has ultimately deterred North Korea.

In September 2005, after more than two years of on-off talks, North Korea agreed a landmark deal to give up its nuclear ambitions in return for economic aid and political concessions.

Implementing the deal proved extremely difficult and the talks stalled in April 2009.

Contacts in July 2011 did not get far before long-time leader Kim Jong-il died and was succeeded by his son, Kim Jong-un.

Another step forward in early 2012, when North Korea suddenly announced it would suspend nuclear activities and place a moratorium on missile tests in exchange for US food aid, came to nothing when Pyongyang tried to launch a rocket in April that year.

The UN further tightened sanctions after the 2013 test.

The 2016 test brought another round of universal international condemnation, including from China.

Did the 2013 test advance North Korea's nuclear capabilities?

Image copyright AP
Image caption North Korea's nuclear actions have become a cause of concern among its neighbours, especially South Korea

North Korea made certain claims about its capabilities in the wake of its test.

Firstly, it claimed it had "miniaturised" a device, that is, made a device small enough to fit a nuclear warhead onto a missile.

In April 2015, it repeated this claim, but US officials were quoted as casting doubt on this claim and experts say it is difficult to assess the progress North Korea has made on miniaturisation.

Pyongyang also said the 2013 test had a much greater yield than the plutonium devices it detonated in 2006 and 2009.

Some analysts have suggested that warnings of a "high-level" test could have been code for the use of highly enriched uranium (HEU) rather than plutonium.

Although both represent roughly the same level of threat, a uranium bomb would signify a huge technological achievement because the process of distilling natural uranium ore to the stuff suitable for bombs is profoundly difficult.

The 2013 test was indeed larger in force than previous ones but monitors failed to detect radioactive isotopes. Finding certain isotopes would help experts determine whether a plutonium or uranium-based device was used.

But a well-contained test could yield no radioactive isotopes, experts say. So uncertainty remains.

2016 - an H-bomb test?

North Korea's claims it carried out an underground test of a hydrogen bomb in January 2016 were met with plenty of scepticism.

Initial estimates put the blast in the 10 to 15 kiloton range, whereas a full thermonuclear blast would be closer to 100 kilotons.

Tests for regional radioactivity will again be carried out, but there is no certainty they will offer a definitive conclusion.

As in 2013, North Korea claimed this was a successful test of a miniaturised device. Again it has not been verified.