According to anti-nuclear activists, North Korea may have spent as much as $642 million on its nuclear programme last year, as the impoverished regime prepares to test a new weapon despite a covid outbreak and economic crisis.
There is no reliable information on North Korea’s nuclear budget or arsenal size. It has carried out at least six nuclear tests since 2006, and appears to be getting ready to restart testing for the first time since 2017.
In a report on global nuclear weapons spending released on Tuesday, the Geneva-based International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons said its estimate is based on the assumption that North Korea has continued to spend about a third of its gross national income (GNI) on its military, and about 6 percent of that military budget on nuclear weapons.
North Korea, according to this estimate, spends about half as much as Pakistan, the next lowest spender among the nine nuclear-armed countries covered by the ICAN report.
The US, which has led an international campaign to put sanctions on North Korea over its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile development, has chastised Pyongyang for spending millions of dollars on its military while the country suffers from food shortages and other economic difficulties.
Whether Pyongyang reduced funds for its nuclear programme during the pandemic is unknown.
Analysts, foreign officials, and independent researchers who track UN sanctions say Pyongyang appears to be moving forward with its declared objective of growing and expanding its arsenal, with activity and new construction seen at its main nuclear reactor, uranium mine, and other locations.
The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) estimated that North Korea has assembled up to 20 bombs and likely has enough fissile material for 45–55 nuclear weapons in its annual study released this week.
SIPRI stated that “North Korea’s military nuclear programme remains key to its national security strategy.”
According to South Korea’s most recent defence white paper, North Korea has about 50 kg of weapons-grade plutonium and “substantial” amounts of highly enriched uranium, a figure that has remained constant since 2016.