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North Korea’s Nuclear Futures Project: Technology and Strategy

Since the end of the Korean War, the United States has grappled with the security challenge posed by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. An increasingly important component of that challenge has been North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and delivery systems. Pyongyang’s quest has stretched out over decades, representing an enormous investment of manpower, resources and money totaling billions of dollars.

While the international community is generally aware of Pyongyang’s programs, largely through the North Korea’s Nuclear Futures Project: Technology and Strategy North’s sporadic conduct of nuclear weapons and long-range rocket tests, little recent attention has been focused on the very significant dangers posed by this effort. The international community and media are focused on heading off Iran’s small nuclear weapons program rather than on the disturbing developments on the Korean peninsula. Another reason for the lack of serious attention is the still prevailing view of North Korea as a starving, backwards and isolated country led by a young inexperienced and somewhat comical dictator. That perception was, to some degree, offset by the recent North Korean cyber-attack on Sony Pictures.

The North Korea Nuclear Futures Project,[1] conducted by the US-Korea Institute at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in cooperation with the Center for the Study of WMD at the National Defense University, was established in mid-2014 to examine Pyongyang’s emergence as a small nuclear power. The project, through a series of three workshops in 2014-2015, will analyze how North Korea’s nuclear deterrent and strategy may develop over the next five years, the implications for the United States, the region and the international community and possible policy responses.

The first of three workshops, held in October 2014 was attended by a distinguished group of American experts on weapons technology, North Korea, US nuclear weapons and strategy as well as on the experiences of other small nuclear powers such as Israel, Pakistan, India and China. The meeting analyzed North Korea’s WMD technology and its emerging nuclear strategy looking at where it might be headed by 2020. Given the uncertainties involved in forecasting the future, the workshop developed a range of possible scenarios over the next five years.

This first report of the North Korea’s Nuclear Futures Project provides a summary of findings from the first meeting.[2] It lays out the baseline knowledge of North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs and provides low-end, medium and high-end projections for the DPRK’s nuclear arsenal and missile capabilities by 2020 and begins to explore the political and security challenges these capabilities could pose both to the region and to the United States.


Joel S. Wit, Senior Fellow


MIA from Columbia University in 1979; and a BA from Bucknell University in 1976.


Joel S. Wit is concurrently a Senior Fellow at US-Korea Institute at SAIS and a Senior Research Fellow at Columbia University Weatherhead Institute for East Asian Studies.

He has served as Senior Advisor to Ambassador Robert L. Galluci from 1993-1995, where he developed strategies to help resolve the crisis over North Korea’s weapons program, and as Coordinator for the US-North Korea’s weapons program and as Coordinator for the US-North Korea Agreed Framework from 1995-1999, where he was the official in charge of implementation. He was also a key participant in the establishment of the Korean Peninsular Energy Development Organization (KEDO).

Prior to his efforts on the Agreed Framework, Wit was assigned to the State Department’s Office of Strategic Nuclear Policy, where he was responsible for U.S. policy on a range of issues related to nuclear arms control and weapons proliferation. In that capacity from 1988 to 1992, Wit helped negotiate strategic arms control agreements with the former Soviet Union and participated in the Nunn-Lugar program to dismantle its nuclear weapons. He was also a Guest Scholar at the Brookings Institute from 1999-2001.

Selected Publications:

Joel Wit published numerous articles on Northeast Asian security issues. He has also written numerous articles on North Korea and nonproliferation and is the coauthor of the book Going Critical: The First North Korean Nuclear Crisis (Brookings Institution Press, 2004).