Author - Aditya Mathur
According to estimates, North Korea could have roughly 60 nuclear bombs.
According to the UN's nuclear watchdog, North Korea 'appears' to have restarted a nuclear reactor, sparking fears that the country is expanding its nuclear programme.
The exact nuclear capability of North Korea, one of the world's most closed governments, is unknown. In 2009, inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) were ejected from the country. Last year, the US Army estimated that Pyongyang possessed 20 to 60 nuclear weapons and was capable of producing six more.
North Korea would join India, Israel, Pakistan, China, France, the United Kingdom, Russia, and the United States as nuclear-weapons states.
So, why is North Korea's nuclear development causing concern?
Producing nuclear weapons with no international oversight
The Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) recognises just five countries as "nuclear-weapon states": China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States. In 2003, North Korea withdrew from the deal.
Today, the US and Russia each have around 1,350 strategic warheads deployed on several hundred bombers and missiles, far more than North Korea is suspected of possessing.
Those countries that are recognised by the treaty, on the other hand, are not supposed to produce and maintain such weapons indefinitely.
Despite the fact that North Korea is one of the poorest countries on the planet, it spends about a quarter of its GDP on military spending, which is more than 170 other countries monitored by the US.
North Korea's military efforts are uncontrolled by international institutions and untested for safety, despite the fact that it has claimed nuclear weapons.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which monitors Pyongyang via satellite photos, said additional nuclear testing appears to have begun, and the signs are "very disturbing."
"[North Korea's] nuclear activities remain a source of grave concern. There have been signs, including the discharge of cooling water, compatible with the operation, since early July 2021," the report (PDF) said of the reactor at North Korea's Yongbyon nuclear complex, which is at the heart of its nuclear programme.
The main source of concern is the likelihood that the reactor is creating atomic warheads, the world's deadliest weapon. According to David Albright, head of the Institute for Science and International Security, North Korea's 5-megawatt (MW) reactor is capable of producing weapons-grade plutonium, and more plutonium might help North Korea manufacture smaller nuclear weapons.
North Korea's Supreme Leader, Kim Jong Un, disclosed intentions in January to modernise the country's nuclear capabilities, with a concentration on miniaturised nuclear bombs and submarines.
Nuclear missiles with a long range and far-reaching repercussions
Smaller nuclear warheads may fit on ballistic missiles, which the United States and its Asian partner, South Korea, regard as a serious security concern.
North Korea launched its intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) in July and November 2017, each capable of delivering a heavy nuclear payload that could reach up to 10,000 kilometres.
However, the country's unregulated nuclear activities may already be having far-reaching implications through the use of its nuclear capabilities by a third country.
Syria, for example, is known to have conducted nuclear collaboration with the country since 1997, despite being a widely sanctioned country.
In 2007, Israel attacked a structure in Syria that was alleged to be a copy of North Korea's Yongbyon nuclear reactor, killing several North Korean technicians.
Syria's nuclear relationship with North Korea, on the other hand, grew to include the sale of chemical weapons during the conflict that began in 2011.
On April 4, 2017, a single bombing in Syria's Khan Shaykhun, a town in southern Idlib, killed around 100 people.
The Organisation for the Prohibition of Deadly Weapons (OPCW) confirmed concerns that the internationally banned chemical agent Sarin was used in the attack, while information obtained has established one of the most compelling cases against Syrian regime leader Bashar al Assad.
In July of this year, the international chemical weapons watchdog OPCW announced that its investigations had indicated that chemical weapons were likely or certainly used in 16 other incidents in Syria. The Western world mostly charges.
Iran, Egypt, Libya, Pakistan, and Yemen are among the countries that have traded nuclear weapons or missiles with North Korea.
After decades of denuclearisation discussions, the country's leadership sees its nuclear programme as critical to the regime's survival and is using its nuclear power to lobby the UN Security Council and the US for release from international sanctions.