How big of a threat is North Korea?

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Kim Jong Un’s “Hermit Kingdom” is amassing a nuclear arsenal that could reach South Korea, Japan — and even the U.S. Here’s everything you need to know.

How large is Kim’s nuclear arsenal?

His tyrannical regime now has an estimated 20 nuclear warheads — and is adding a new weapon to that stockpile every six weeks or so, experts believe. North Korea has also been steadily upgrading its ballistic missiles. It has already successfully mounted a small nuclear warhead on a 1,500 km–range Rodong missile that can reach South Korea and Japan — and is on course to develop 13,000 km–range intercontinental ballistic missiles targeting the continental U.S. by early next decade, according to observers at Johns Hopkins University. President Obama and his predecessor, George W. Bush, allowed North Korea’s nuclear escalation to take a backseat to other threats, like Iran, largely dismissing Kim’s threats to burn Seoul and Manhattan “down to ashes” as bluffs and posturing. But the U.S. ignores North Korea’s growing nuclear arsenal — and the instability of its erratic leader — at its peril, says Mark Fitzpatrick of the International Institute for Strategic Studies. “Just because Pyongyang wants us to pay attention,” Fitzpatrick told The Economist, “that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t.”

When did North Korea go nuclear?

Kim’s father, Kim Jong Il, made the nuclear program central to the dictatorial regime’s identity in the early 1990s, as a way of unifying the country after a devastating famine. President Bill Clinton tried to check North Korea’s nuclear ambitions in 1994 with the Agreed Framework, a pact that exchanged economic aid for the freezing of the country’s nuclear program. But Pyongyang continued to provoke the West with rocket tests, and after Bush was elected in 2000, talks broke down when Pyongyang failed to provide verification of its compliance. In 2003, North Korea quit the Non-Proliferation Treaty and announced it had nuclear weapons, carrying out its first nuclear test three years later. Under the leadership of 33-year-old Kim Jong Un, who came to power upon his father’s death in 2011, the pace of nuclear and missile tests has accelerated dramatically — culminating with a fourth nuclear test, of a supposed hydrogen bomb, in January.

How worried should we be?

It’s difficult to say, given the secrecy surrounding the Hermit Kingdom. Many of its missile and nuclear tests have failed or been hyped. In January, for example, Pyongyang claimed to have detonated its first hydrogen bomb, but experts said the tremors were smaller than expected for an H-bomb. Nevertheless, the Kim regime appears to be compiling all the pieces for a deliverable atomic device. Kim recently posed with a miniaturized atomic warhead supposedly light enough to ride atop a rocket that could span the Pacific. “Their systems never work the first time,” says aerospace engineer John Schilling, “but they persevere.”

Written By: Susheel Kandel