Joshua PollackNorth Korean WMD: A Guide to Online Resources

North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs are the topic du jour in the WMD world, but if you’re trying to get smart about the subject, where should you turn? The amount of material never gets any smaller, and you’ve nearly got to be an expert in your own right to judge what’s what.

I won’t try to catalogue and evaluate everything out there. Instead, I’d like to point out a handful of good things, say why I think they’re good, and note any concerns or qualifications. My emphasis will be both on recent, up-to-date publications and on older materials of enduring value. I’m also sticking with what’s openly accessible online, in English. A survey of the published literature is out of scope for today, and I’m not qualified to sift works in Korean, Japanese, etc. The focus, furthermore, will be on Weapons of Mass Destruction, with one partial exception: materials concerning how the regime functions and sees the world. That tells us, among other things, why WMD are so important to Pyongyang.

Obviously this is not a comprehensive list, and it represents only my own judgments. Also, I have no intention of keeping this page up to date. What you see is what you get! Enjoy.


The single most comprehensive resource

  • The NTI North Korea WMD country profile.  A sprawling collection of useful material, updated a few times a year: nukes, chem, bio, missiles, production facilities, the whole deal. Caveat: It’s so big that it can’t easily be reviewed and refreshed in its entirety as new information comes to light. But by the same token, it’s the single resource that’s closest to exhaustive.

The missile program

The nuclear program

Nuclear military strategy 

  • Max Fisher, “The Hidden Messages in North Korea’s Military Parade,”, Apr. 18, 2017. An evaluation of the roles of the array of missiles, new and old, displayed in Pyongyang this April 15.
  • Bonnie Berkowitz, Laris Karklis, and Tim Meko, “North Korea showed off a lot of missiles. What might be its targets?“,, May 18, 2017. The authors take up the flip side of the coin, looking into specific targets for nuclear strikes. Both of these features avoid the jargon of Western nuclear strategy (“counterforce” and “countervalue”), allowing the authors to try to assess North Korea’s approach on its own terms.

Chemical and biological weapons

  • North Korea’s Chemical and Biological Weapons Programs,” International Crisis Group Asia Report No. 167, Jun. 18, 2009. A wide-ranging look at both types of weapons and their role in North Korean military thinking, to the extent we can know. (Crisis Group reports don’t list authors, but this one appeared when Daniel Pinkston was their guy in Seoul.)
  • Mark Fitzpatrick, “North Korean Proliferation Challenges: The Role of the European Union,” EU Non-proliferation Consortium, Non-proliferation Report No. 12, June 2012. Don’t be misled by the subtitle; this 16-page brief is of interest to more than EU readers. It distills the main points of a much larger publication on North Korea produced by the International Institute for Strategic Studies in 2011 (not available online). Unfortunately, the nuclear and missile sections are now completely out of date, but read it for the chem and bio portions.
  • Melissa Hanham, “Kim Jong Un Tours Pesticide Facility Capable of Producing Biological Weapons: A 38 North Special Report,”, Jul. 9, 2015. Quite simply the best example of using open-source analysis to assess an aspect of North Korean WMD capabilities that has yet been published, blending technical understanding with a keen sense of how the North Korean regime uses ambiguous signals for deterrence or coercion.

North Korean political economy

  • Kim Kwang Jin, “The Defector’s Tale: Inside North Korea’s Secret Economy,” World Affairs Journal, September-October 2011. (Alternative link if the above doesn’t work.) A penetrating explanation of North Korea’s parallel economies during the Kim Jong Il era (1994-2011): the anemic People’s Economy, and the flush Royal Court Economy, which supports both the ruler’s personal needs and North Korea’s WMD programs.
  • Choe Sang-hun, “As Economy Grows, North Korea’s Grip on Society is Tested,” New York Times, Apr. 30, 2017. An eye-opening look at how much has changed in the North Korean economy since Kim Jong Un assumed power in December 2011.
  • Atsuhito Isozaki (with James Person), “Understanding the North Korean Regime,” Wilson Center Asia Program, April 2017. A concise volume that explains North Korean regime ideology, structure, and perceptions through the lens of official propaganda, a rich and deeply revealing set of sources when studied closely. The author, a Japanese scholar, is familiar with a much wider range of scholarship than his American counterparts, having studied Japanese, South Korean, Chinese, and American works. One caveat: in its discussion of North Korean ideology, this monograph dwells on the legacy ideologies of juche sasang (the “self-determination” idea) and songun chongchi (military-first politics), neglecting the emergence of what now appears to be Kim Jong Un’s own signature ideology, jaryok jagang (“self-reliance and self-development”). It’s mentioned briefly in the previous item in the guise of “jagang, or self-empowerment,” but has yet to receive sustained attention in English-language studies of North Korea.

A bonus item

  • Max Fisher and Jugal K. Patel, “What One Photo Tells Us About North Korea’s Nuclear Program,” New York Times, Feb. 24, 2017. I didn’t know where exactly to place this one in the categories above, but wasn’t about to leave it out. It’s a case study in several methods of open-source analysis, and something I was very pleased to be associated with. This feature shows just how stimulating the study of North Korean WMD can be!


  1. Aidan (History)

    The most comprehensive discussion of North Korea’s ideology would be found in The Cleanest Race by B.R. Myers, and the objectives that the military-first regime has in mind for its nuclear program can be found in this short article.

    • Joshua Pollack (History)

      Myers is a very polemical writer! It’s easy to be contemptuous of others. My own views aren’t entirely different from his, but I think the field would benefit from experts’ not crapping on each other with quite so much gusto, and maybe explaining their reasoning a little more closely. He does it with style, though. Points for that.

    • Aidan (History)

      It’s very easy for me to accept his style of writing; I agree with him. If you don’t like his style of writing; we can always get the “nukes are for reunification,” thesis somewhere else.

    • Joshua Pollack (History)

      Well. People have been known to deceive themselves. They have also been known not to read primary sources, the lazy bastards. But if the real work of the scholar is to mock others for not accepting the obvious, surface meaning of things, rather than making a careful case for one’s views, then one could also be exposed to charges of laziness. Attitude isn’t always enough. Besides, it’s better to be moderate in tone if possible. Everyone is wrong sometimes, and it’s easier to make corrections if you’re haven’t climbed too far out into a limb.

  2. Pavel (History)

    Fairly recent paper on NK nuclear complex by Sig Hecker et al: North Korean Nuclear Facilities After the Agreed Framework

    • Joshua Pollack (History)

      Thanks, Pavel!