According to anti-nuclear activists, North Korea may have spent up to $642 million on its nuclear development last year, as the impoverished government appears set to test a new weapon despite battling a COVID-19 outbreak and an economic crisis.
In a report on global nuclear weapons spending released on Tuesday, the Geneva-based International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons stated that its estimate is based on the assumption that North Korea has continued to spend approximately one-third of its gross national income (GNI) on its military, with approximately six percent of that budget going toward nuclear weapons.
There are no reliable figures on North Korea's nuclear expenditures or arsenal size. At least six nuclear tests have been performed by North Korea since 2006, and it appears to be prepared to restart testing for the first time since 2017.
North Korea is the lowest spender among the nine nuclear-armed countries examined by the ICAN research, paying roughly half as much as Pakistan, the next lowest spender.
The United States, which has led an international drive to impose sanctions on North Korea over its nuclear weapons and ballistic missile development, has criticized Pyongyang for spending millions of dollars on its military despite food shortages and other economic difficulties.
North Korea asserts that it has the right to build nuclear weapons for self-defense and that these weapons are vital to protect the country from international threats.
During the pandemic, it is unknown whether Pyongyang reduced funds for its nuclear development.
Analysts, foreign officials, and independent experts who observe United Nations sanctions have reported that Pyongyang appears to have moved forward with its stated objective of developing and expanding its arsenal, as activity and new construction have been observed at its main nuclear reactor, uranium mine, and other related sites.
In a report released this week, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) estimated that North Korea had assembled up to 20 nuclear warheads and likely possesses enough fissile material for 45-55 nuclear weapons.
SIPRI stated that North Korea's military nuclear program remained key to its national security strategy.
North Korea possesses approximately 50 kilograms of weapons-grade plutonium and "significant" quantities of highly enriched uranium, according to South Korea's most recent defense white paper, an estimate that has not altered since 2016.