Understanding North Korea

Getting to grips with North Korea in 15 graphics


North Korea is never far from the media spotlight, as the rogue state’s nuclear weapons programme gathers momentum and its war of words with the United States threatens to spiral out of control. Here, we present a selection of infographics to help readers come to grips with the Kim Jong-un regime

Navigate through a visual history of nuclear missile launches, culminating in the most recent tests by Pyongyang. Take a look at North Korea’s natural resources and its trading partners, and see what shelter is available in South Korea

Chapter 1:

Nuclear tests


Pyongyang’s most recent nuclear test was at least seven times more powerful than the bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima during the second world war. But even this is dwarfed by intercontinental ballistic missiles, which carry multiple warheads. The United States’ (B83) and China’s (Dongfeng-5) ICBMs are respectively 12 times and 20 times more powerful than North Korea’s hydrogen bomb

The 6.3 magnitude earthquake recorded at the Punggye-ri test site on September 3 led US geological survey experts to estimate the hydrogen bomb had a load of 100 kilotons. According to Pyongyang’s official Korean Central News Agency: “The H-bomb test was carried out to examine and confirm the accuracy and credibility of the power control technology and internal structural design of the weapon”

The nuclear spectrum

The visualisation below shows the power of every nuclear explosion carried out between 1945 and 1998. This includes all test programmes and explosions for peaceful purposes, as well as the US atomic raid over Japan

Click country names to toggle nuclear tests

Kilotons yield estimated ___ off

Bombs dropped over Hiroshima and Nagasaki

RDS-37. The first Soviet test of a hydrogen bomb in the megaton range

Tsar Bomba. The Soviet bomb was the largest nuclear weapon ever detonated, equivalent to 10 times the total explosives used in the second world war

First test by China. Operation 59-6 was carried out in the Gobi desert in Xinjiang province

France carries out tests in the uninhabited islands of Moruroa and Fangataufa in the South Pacific

The Threshold Test Ban Treaty signed by the US and USSR limits nuclear test explosions to under 150 kilotons

The Julin nuclear test series was the last conducted by the US

The Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban treaty is adopted by the United Nations, banning all nuclear explosions

Source: Sipri

Punggye-ri is situated on mountainous terrain and is the world’s only active nuclear test site. The sixth North Korean nuclear test was carried out in a tunnel system under Mount Mantap. Seismic activity produced by the explosion could be felt in Chinese cities near the border

Blast power

Sources: Sipri, US Nuclear Test

Chapter 2:

The resources everyone wants to get their hands on


Regardless of how the current crisis plays out, North Korea’s neighbours are keen to tap into the country’s underground treasure trove

China stopped importing coal from North Korea in February 2017 in line with the United Nations sanctions set out in March 2016. [ UN Resolution ] As Pyongyang’s largest commercial partner, the move came as a blow. But China continued to trade certain goods such as seafood, using the “humanitarian exemption” clause, until August 2017

North Korean exports

Source: Observatory of Economic Complexity, MIT

Most of the world’s trade with North Korea is based around minerals, coal, iron and copper. Pyongyang has given this industry top priority since the 1970s. But the UN trade ban, on top of 30 years of low-grade equipment and insubstantial infrastructure, means there is a rich vein of deposits waiting to be tapped [ Center for Strategic & International Studies ]

Who are North Korea’s traditional partners?

Value of coal imports from North Korea

Source: Observatory of Economic Complexity, MIT

North Korea’s coal deposits are owned by the government, but foreign overtures had become increasingly frequent in recent years

Russian proposal
In return for access to the country’s mineral reserves, Russia proposed a US$25 billion investment to improve North Korea’s railway network in 2014. That project didn’t make any progress but it didn’t get taken off the table, either

Railway network in the region

The Jongju desposit
In late 2014, Pacific Century Rare Earth Mineral Limited announced the discovery of about 216.2 million tonnes of rare earth minerals. That’s double the world’s current reserves of minerals such as fluorite, apatite, nepheline, feldspar and ilmenite. These rare earth minerals are a fundamental part of electronic screens and mobile devices. Today, China leads the world in the extraction and consumption of these minerals, mainly from Inner Mongolia, where 95 per cent of the world’s known reserves are concentrated

The veracity of this discovery has been questioned by many who see it as little more than attention-seeking propaganda by North Korea

Mineral wealth

Select a mineral commodity to filter the map below

Sources: 38NORTH, and USGS

South Korea has plans of its own
Ever since the civil war broke out on June 25, 1950, South Korea has kept the idea of reunification utmost in mind. A unified Korea would need huge investments to modernise the North’s long neglected infrastructure, motorways, railways, electricity networks and so on, which would take trillions of dollars. Seoul would hope to fund much of the reunification out of profits from the mining industry

Chapter 3:

Missile tests


Pyongyang’s growing ballistic capability also brings increased risk to international flights as long-range missile tests extend beyond North Korean airspace. On July 28, a Hwasong-14 crashed into an area where numerous flight routes pass

Flight airspace risk

The remains of missiles launched by the Kim Jung-un regime have fallen close to flight routes. The map shows paths near North Korea used by commercial aviation – including many within Japanese airspace

Airlines have been advised to avoid flying over North Korean airspace since 2016. A missile launched on June 28 passed within 10 minutes of the route used by Air France flight 293

Missile launches in 2017 by North Korea

Missile re-entry splashdown

TThe latest missile tests conducted by North Korea have used different angles of flight and re-entry into the atmosphere

Re-entry to Earth

The chances of impact with a plane are the same as with any space debris, or solid, entering the atmosphere from outer space

Source: Flight Service Bureau, SkyVector


South Korea has deployed two anti-missile defence systems known as Terminal High-Altitude Area Defence (THAAD). Although these would not be effective against attacks on Seoul, they are capable of destroying long-distance missiles set on a parabolic trajectory travelling beyond the Korean peninsula

Source: Lockheed Martin Corporation

Chapter 4:

Taking cover


Do South Koreans feel reassured by the existence of bomb shelters?

If North Korea triggered a conflict, those in the south would likely be the first victims. Nuclear weapons aside, single cannon artillery and small missiles could reach crowded cities very quickly, causing wide-scale damage

Pyongyang has been amassing artillery near the border since the cold war era. Targets in South Korea, 40km from the border, could be practically annihilated in less than five minutes

South Korea’s secure sites

Switch between shelter types below

Source: South Korean Gov. Open Data

In the city of Seoul alone, there are 3,249 shelters; across the country there are about 16,000 more

While it is true that bomb shelters provide security during an attack, people would have less than four minutes to find one. And for those who aren’t prepared, conditions inside would be rudimentary at best. According to government data, most shelters are basic car parks with little, if any, facilities and without basic supplies like water or medicine [ Reuters ]

Hardened artillery nest

Pyongyang has embedded these sites by digging into mountain slopes, where large items of artillery can be stored along with ammunition, while permanently housing troops. The preferred place for an artillery battery is on a reverse slope. North Korean artillery can supposedly fire numerous projectiles from these positions directly on defences near the demilitarised zone (DMZ) and as far south as Seoul

Sources: Nautilus, Mauldin Economics

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