North Korea may have as many as eight or more intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) capable of striking the U.S. mainland, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies in its annual report The Military Balance 2021. This comes as North Korea continues to make progress on its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs, with no indications that it will readily abandon its strategic arsenal anytime soon.
North Korea is known to possess three models of ICBMs capable of targeting the continental United States. The Hwasong-14, which North Korea has successfully flight tested on two occasions, is believed to have a potential range upwards of 10,000 km, placing the majority of the United States within range. North Korea’s Hwasong-15, which it has tested once, is believed to be capable of striking the entirety of the U.S. homeland with a possible range of up to 13,000 km.
The Hwasong-16, North Korea’s most recent addition to its ICBM arsenal, was unveiled during a military parade in October 2020. The Hwasong-16 is North Korea’s largest ICBM so far, and while some analysts have questioned the added military value that it brings to the table, the missile at the very least demonstrates North Korea’s ability to make continued progress on its ballistic missile program despite the presence of international sanctions.
All of North Korea’s ICBMs remain liquid-fueled – meaning they would need to be fueled prior to launch – and there are lingering questions regarding North Korea’s ability to reliably fit its ICBMs with reentry vehicles.
Beyond its arsenal of ICBMs, North Korea is also in possession of ballistic missiles capable of targeting U.S. military facilities on Guam and has continued to pursue the development of submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs). In addition, North Korea has demonstrated significant progress in its development of short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs), with some of its most recent SRBMs demonstrating both substantial accuracy and the potential to evade regional ballistic missile defenses (BMD), fueling speculation that North Korea is actively attempting to defeat adversarial BMD.
North Korea’s conventional military remains large, with the total strength of the Korean People’s Army standing at roughly 1.3 million personnel. The KPA operates primarily outdated Soviet-era equipment, though North Korea has developed some more modern weaponry including artillery pieces and main battle tanks. Despite this, the KPA retains a quantitative advantage over both the U.S. and ROK militaries, but faces a significant qualitative disadvantage.
In order to overcome this, North Korea has focused on development of asymmetric military capabilities such as cyber tools, special operations forces, ballistic missiles, and chemical weapons. According to the Department of Defense, North Korea focuses its efforts on areas where it believes it has the potential to enjoy some relative advantage.