Key point: For a poor, small, weak country, North Korea is armed to the teeth.
North Korea is a poor, dilapidated country. It is also the world’s most repressive, heavily armed nation, routinely practices diplomacy through spontaneous violence, kidnaps citizens of other nations, regularly threatens war and is technically still at war with the United States.
North Korea maintains a staggering arsenal, from tens of thousands of light infantry to heavy artillery all the way to nuclear weapons. North Korean weapons can be roughly divided into three categories: those that guarantee the survival of the regime, those that are useful for reunification, and those that are useful for provocation. The categories are often—but not always—mutually exclusive.
Nuclear weapons, for example, guarantee the survival of the regime but are not useful for much else. The Korean People’s Army tank fleet is good for reuniting the peninsula in a war, but isn’t much of a strategic deterrent, nor is it useful for provocation. North Korea’s gunboats are worthless in any situation except for a provocation at sea.
All are very concerning. Let’s take a look at the North Korean weapons South Korea fears most:
Nuclear weapons are the most important weapons in the North Korean arsenal. The express purpose of North Korean nuclear weapons is act as a deterrent to forced regime change. As long as North Korea has nukes, both the United States and South Korea are averse to directly threatening the Kim regime. The North Korean People’s Army, Navy and Air Force may be obsolescent and no match for U.S. and South Korean forces, but they’re increasingly irrelevant in the long term.
North Korea’s first nuclear test was in 2006 and was assessed by the U.S. intelligence community as having a yield of less than 1,000 tons TNT. (The Hiroshima bomb, for example, is estimated at 18,000-ton high-explosive yield, or 18 kilotons.) The yield was so small that the test was widely regarded to have been a failure.
A second test in 2009 was of a slightly larger yield and also considered a failure. A third test in 2013 is estimated to have had a yield of 6-40 kilotons and was considered a success.
The actual number of weapons North Korea has is unknown, but on June 16, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute announced it believed the country maintained a stockpile of 6-8 weapons.