IDR Blog

DPRK’S Non-Nuclear Arsenal
Star Rating Loader Please wait...
Wamika Kapur | Date:23 Nov , 2017 0 Comments

“If you know your enemies and know yourself, you will not be put at risk even in a hundred battles. If you only know yourself, but not your opponent, you may win or may lose. If you know neither yourself nor your enemy, you will always endanger yourself. — Sun Tzu, Art of War

Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’s (DPRK) nuclear weapons programme has been at the center of heated debate for decades. Recent rise in tensions between United States of America (USA) and DPRK, has brought back the remote possibility of World War III with the Korean peninsula as ground zero. While nuclear weapons in the hands of rogue states with a terrorist problem is definitely a cause for concern, DPRK is not the first country to develop a nuclear weapons system outside the purview of international law. Further, the unending cycle of DPRK missile tests, USA  President Trump’s tweets condemning the tests, multiparty meetings discussing engagement options and economic sanctions has made the non – nuclear capabilities of DPRK inconspicuous. While DPRK may still be heavily dependent on patron states, such as China, for its food and energy needs, it has managed to fulfil Kim Il – Sung’s Juche ideology in terms of creating a self – sufficient defence. To achieve the same, DPRK announced the “ byungjin ” policy in 2013, which emphasizes the parallel development of the country’s economy and nuclear weapons program. Meanwhile, it has also been developing its non – nuclear weapons capabilities. These highly advanced non – nuclear weapon systems, especially cyber capabilities, are important because they can be the game changers that re-define the global world order.

DPRK today boasts having the fourth largest standing army in the world.  Its military has more than 1.1 million personnel, 1,300 aircraft, nearly 300 helicopters, 430 combatant vessels, 250 amphibious vessels, 70 submarines, 4,300 tanks,  2,500 armored vehicles, 5,500 multiple-rocket launchers and approximately 1000 missiles of varying ranges. [i] It is a mix of indigenous weapons and borrowed technologies.

The Korean Workers’ Party (KWP) Munitions Industry Department is responsible for research, development and production of chemical and biological weapons. In 1989, DPRK was estimated to have 180 to 250 chemical weapons. In 2013, an annual production potential of 4,500 tons of chemical agents in peacetime and 12,000 tons in wartime was estimated. A Defense White Paper (2016) by the Ministry of National Defence,  Republic of Korea has estimated that DPRK currently holds a stockpile of an estimated 2,500 to 5,000 tons of chemical weapons. Thus, estimates of chemical weapon’s inventory have varied considerably over the past 20 years. [ii] These weapons include, but are not limited to, adamsite (DM), chloroacetophenone (CN), chlorobenzyliidene malononitrile (CS), chlorine (CL), cyanogen chloride (CK), hydrogen cyanide (AC), mustard-family (H, HD or HL), phosgene (CG and CX), sarin (GB), soman (GD), tabun (GA) and V-agents (VM and VX). [iii]  Further, they have the capacity to produce nerve, blister, blood, and choking agents.  All of these chemical and biological weapons are compatible with missiles, rockets and conventional shells. They also have inherent advantages of long shelf life and safety. In terms of biological weapons specifically, DPRK has the capability to produce pathogens such as anthrax and smallpox while the battle readiness of these weapons is still unclear. [iv]

Western economic warfare, in the form of sanctions and embargos, has tried to curtail DPRK’s access to materials, but regulating all international cargo deliveries is cumbersome and often not pervasive. Further, restricting access to funds directed to military and nuclear advancements may have been countered by DPRK’s cyber activities. Many experts have alleged that the recent attacks on financial institutions in South Korea [v] [vi] (PEACHPIT malware), Bangladesh (SWIFT attack) and Malaysia have origins in DPRK’s  Unit 180  [vii],  its elite warfare cell, or hacker group Lazarus which has been linked to an 81-million-dollar cyber heist in 2016, also assumed to have origins in DPRK. Global  WannaCry “ransomware” cyber-attack which infected 300,000 computers in 150 countries (2017) has been connected to DPRK as well. There is a clear lack of conclusive evidence in each case which makes it the perfect form of attack for DPRK. It has also been speculated that the hardware used was Chinese in order to allow deniability. Using China as a base for these attacks follows logically as China has an abundance of cheap energy and hardware and has been providing internet connectivity to DPRK through a China Unicom Link since 2010  [viii] , both of which are required for such attacks. It can be speculated that the pressure on China, from USA, to end business dealings with DPRK were aimed at weakening its internet infrastructure. But, this American strategy has failed since internet connectivity in DPRK has been supplemented by TransTeleCom (TTK), one of Russia’s biggest telecommunications company, since October.  [ix]

The latest in the use of cyber capabilities for financial gain to circumvent UNSC sanctions has been the use of cryptocurrencies. Cryptocurrencies are a form of intangible cyber currency which cross geographical boundaries, banking systems and governmental institutions making them perfect for illegal money laundering.  [x] The attacks are allegedly carried out by the cyber army of the regime led by the Reconnaissance General Bureau  (RGB) which also leads Unit 180. The name of the group in charge of the cyber – espionage activity has been identified as TEMP. Hermit.  Assigning attribution in the cyber domain has allowed experts to link attacks to common elements. The intricacy with which the cyber capabilities have become a part of DPRK’s military doctrine shows their openness towards advanced and untested weapons. Further, their isolation policy is perfect for such clandestine activities.

DPRK views its nuclear weapons programme as the ultimate deterrent, the key to peace on the peninsula and their means to international recognition. The same programme is viewed as a threat by the rest of the world, predominantly the West.  It is almost impossible to determine whether DPRK’s military capabilities are defensive or offensive, given the provenance of its weapons systems and extent of collaboration with China, former Soviet Union and present Russia, Pakistan, Iran, Libya, Syria, Egypt, Vietnam, Yemen, United Arab Emirates, and Myanmar, accurate quantification of its weapons or even DPRK’s war readiness. The scale of armaments and the number of stakeholders portends mass destruction and death. To avoid such a scenario, it is crucial that governments imbibe the post-modernist Foucardian approach of  ‘ knowledge is power ’ beginning with keeping a close eye on the non – nuclear arsenal of DPRK instead of only focusing on the nuclear weapons.


[i] Council on Foreign Relations, 5 September 2017, Available at:

[ii] Joseph S Bermudez, 38North, 10 October 2013, Available at: jbermudez101013/#_ftn5.

[iii] ibid

[iv] Defence White Paper, Ministry of National Defense, Republic of Korea, Available at: user/mndEN/upload/pblictn/PBLICTNEBOOK_201705180357180050.pdf.

[v] Attack on SONY Pictures Entertainment, FBI, 19 December 2014, Available at: pressrel/press-releases/update-on-sony-investigation.

[vi] Reuters, 21 May 2017, Available at:

[vii] ibid

[viii] 38North, 1 October 2017, Available at: mwilliams100117/.

[ix] ibid

[x] Yuji Nakamura and Sam Kim, Bloomberg, 12 September, 2017, Available at:

Courtesy: With permission reproduced from

Rate this Article
Star Rating Loader Please wait...
The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

Post your Comment

2000characters left