North Korea's role as a center
for nuclear development commenced even before the official creation of the state.
During the Second World War, Japanese officials reportedly based their efforts
to develop an atomic weapon in a region that, after the war ended, would be within
Soviet-occupied North Korea.
The region had a natural draw as a development
site: geologic deposits of some 26 million tons of uranium, the elemental key
to the atomic lock. After the Soviets and Americans divided the Korean peninsula
along the 38th parallel -- a move that was supposed to be temporary but eventually
led to the development of the two Korean states -- the Soviet Union began exporting
uranium out of the area. Shipments reportedly topped 9,000 tons between 1947 and
in 1950, the North Korean army poured across the 38th parallel into the South.
At several points during the ensuing three-year war, the U.S. military considered
using atomic weapons. According to historian Bruce Cumings, Gen. Douglas MacArthur
told the Department of Defense that he saw "a unique use of the atomic bomb"
to strike a "blocking blow" should China enter the war.
Harry Truman also said in Nov. 1950 that, "There has always been active consideration
of its [atomic bomb's] use." In the midst of the war, Kim Il Sung's government
formed the Atomic Energy Research Institute to develop use of radioactivity in
industry, medicine and agriculture.
of nuclear research
After the war ended, North Korea continued its nuclear
efforts, beginning to train nuclear engineers and scientists in the Soviet Union.
Their work focused on the development of the United Institute for Nuclear Research
in the Russian city of Dubna. The center served as the international nuclear research
laboratory for all communist nations.
During the 1960s and 70s, Russian
scientists instructed the North Koreans on plutonium-processing methods. The work
culminated in the construction of the Yongbyon Nuclear Research Complex, 60 miles
north of the capital Pyongyang, in 1961-62. By 1963 the first Soviet-supplied
research reactor was under construction at the site.
for nearly two decades before the efforts came to fruition. According to the Congressional
Research Service, the first major atomic reactor at Yongbyon was built between
1980 and 1987. This 50-electrical megawatt reactor is reportedly capable of producing
enough plutonium each year to build a single atomic weapon.
site at Yongbyon remains at the heart of North Korea's nuclear effort, also housing
two significantly larger reactors onsite that have been under construction since
1984, according to former U.S. Ambassador Robert Gallucci. If completed, these
sites could produce enough fissile material for some 30 atomic bombs per year.
site also has a large plutonium processing plant. The 600-foot-long multi-story
building reportedly houses the refining machinery to take reactor uranium rods
and generate weapons-grade plutonium, with North Korean scientists applying training
received in Soviet-era nuclear facilities.
A CRS report on the site disputed
North Korea's claims that Yongbyon's main goal is electricity generation.
photographs," Larry Niksch wrote in a Jan. 7, 2003 paper, "reportedly
also show that the atomic reactors have no attached power lines, which they would
have if used for electrical power generation."
By 1990, the KGB reported
to the Soviet Central Committee that "development of the first nuclear device
has been completed at the DPRK [Democratic People's Republic of Korea North
Korea] nuclear research center in Yongbyon." The report went on to say the
North Korean government would not test the device in order to avoid international
Within a year, the Bush administration made several diplomatic
overtures in the hopes of bringing North Korea into line with the nuclear nonproliferation
treaty (NPT) Kim IL Sung's government had agreed to in 1985.
the U.S. removed its nuclear weapons from South Korea in late 1991. It then urged
North Korea to agree to two pacts, one a denuclearization agreement with the South,
the other a so-called "safeguards agreement" with the International
Atomic Energy Agency. The deal with the IAEA, which required North Korea to report
all nuclear programs and make those facilities open to international monitoring,
led to a series of six inspections between June 1992 and Feb. 1993.
months of starting the inspections, IAEA officials found evidence indicating North
Korea had not fully accounted for its nuclear stockpiles. This prompted the United
Nations nuclear watchdog to invoke a special inspection protocol to survey two
concealed nuclear waste sites at the Yongbyon complex. North Korea rejected the
IAEA request in March 1993 and promptly announced its intention to pull out of
In 2002, President Clinton acknowledged that in the midst of this
1993-1994 standoff, the president considered a plan to bomb the Yongbyon complex.
Whatever was considered, President Clinton instead responded with a diplomatic
offer of high-level negotiations, a move that caused North Korea to suspend its
planned departure from the proliferation treaty.
Agreed Framework and uranium processing
After extended negotiation, North
Korea and the United States entered into the "Agreed Framework" on Oct.
21, 1994. Under the deal, North Korea would suspend all work at the Yongbyon complex,
end all efforts to enrich plutonium for weapons and open its facilities to international
oversight. In exchange for these moves, the U.S. would supply North Korea with
two light water reactors (LWRs) to generate electricity, and low-cost oil to help
with energy needs until the reactors were built. The agreement also promised a
lifting of most economic sanctions against North Korea, and improved diplomatic
relations with the United States.
main goal in offering North Korea LWRs was to eliminate the output of plutonium
that could be used for weapons.
Although the sanctions against North Korea
were largely lifted and oil deliveries began in early 1995, the development of
the LWRs became more complex. The U.S., South Korea, Japan and several other countries
came together to form the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization (KEDO)
to build the reactors. KEDO soon pushed back the deadline for completing the reactors
from 2003 to 2007. Bureaucratic wrangling over contracts and the establishment
of KEDO slowed the process even more so that the foundations for the two reactors
were not poured until August 2002.
Even as the nations were debating implementation
of the Agreed Framework, North Korea, the United States argued, was breaking the
spirit, if not the letter, of the pact. Within months of signing the framework,
North Korea and Pakistan reportedly cut a deal to trade missile technology for
Pakistan's uranium enrichment techniques the Agreed Framework had banned
plutonium enrichment programs.
For more than three years, the North Koreans
worked quietly on their uranium project while urging the United States to fully
implement the Agreed Framework. The Clinton administration apparently learned
of the secret program in late 1998 or early 1999, and by March 2000, President
Clinton informed Congress he could no longer certify that "North Korea is
not seeking to develop or acquire the capability to enrich uranium."
tensions in the peninsula
Over the next two years, the United States continued
to compile evidence on North Korea's uranium project. It was this evidence that
prompted President Bush to label the Kim Jong Il government part of the "axis
of evil" in his 2002 State of the Union address.
of these regimes have been pretty quiet since September 11th. But we know their
true nature. North Korea is a regime arming with missiles and weapons of mass
destruction, while starving its citizens," the president said.
like these, and their terrorist allies, constitute an axis of evil, arming to
threaten the peace of the world. By seeking weapons of mass destruction, these
regimes pose a grave and growing danger," Mr. Bush added. "They could
provide these arms to terrorists, giving them the means to match their hatred.
They could attack our allies or attempt to blackmail the United States. In any
of these cases, the price of indifference would be catastrophic."
October 2002, Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly confronted officials in
Pyongyang with U.S. evidence of the uranium project. North Korea admitted it was
pursuing the program, and in December 2002 the Central Intelligence Agency reported
North Korea could develop an atomic weapon by 2004.
North Korea said it
would continue the program unless the United States agreed to enter into bilateral
talks to draft a nonaggression pact. The United States has rejected all calls
for such an agreement since it does not include South Korea and could compromise
the South's future security.
In December 2002, KEDO moved to cut off the
supply of fuel oil to North Korea, citing the North's violation of the Agreed
In a quick and surprising response, North Korea moved to restart
the nuclear facilities at Yongbyon that were shut down under the Agreed Framework.
It also expelled officials from the International Atomic Energy Agency and resumed
construction of two large reactors that were frozen under the agreement.
the Agreed Framework crumbled, North Korea also followed through with threats
to withdraw from the NPT in January 2003, releasing it from the obligation to
follow international law. By February, the official Korean Central News Agency,
or KCNA, claimed that it had restarted its nuclear power facilities.
reactivation of the Yongbyon complex, coupled with the uncertain status of the
uranium enrichment facility, left North Korea with a fully mobilized nuclear research
and potential weapons development center. These reactors also increased the potential
atomic weapons output five- to eight-fold, meaning Kim Jong Il's government could
produce more than a dozen atomic bombs a year.
Facing this threat, the United
States, South Korea, China, Japan and Russia opened six-party talks with North
Korea in an attempt to draw Kim Jong IL's government back into diplomatic negotiations.
The talks began in August 2003 and aimed to persuade North Korea to abandon its
nuclear weapons program. In February 2005, with little headway made, North Korea
admitted for the first time to possessing nuclear weapons. The admission was not
verified by outside governments and without a nuclear test, North Korea could
not prove these claims.
Further admissions came in June 2005 when North
Korea said it had a stockpile of nuclear weapons and was in the process of building
more -- even as the six-party talks continued. Negotiations came to a halt in
November 2005 over a dispute with the United States concerning sanctions against
On July 5, 2006, North Korea fired six ballistic missiles,
one of which, the Taepondong-2, was thought to have the capability to reach the
western United States and carry a nuclear weapon. Though the Taepondong-2 failed
after 40 seconds, the other, short-range missiles, fired successfully. A U.N.
Security Council Resolution condemned the move and demanded that North Korea suspend
its ballistic missile program.
Confirmation of the existence of completed
nuclear weapons remained uncertain without a test. A statement by the KCNA in
early October said, "The U.S. extreme threat of a nuclear war and sanctions
and pressure compel the DPRK to conduct a nuclear test, an essential process for
bolstering nuclear deterrent, as a corresponding measure for defense."
Oct. 9, 2006, the KCNA announced that it had successfully conducted an underground
nuclear test that will "contribute to defending the peace and stability on
the Korean Peninsula and in the area around it."
The test was immediately
denounced by the international community and it refocused attention on the country's
nuclear program, especially U.S. concerns that North Korea would share nuclear
information with other countries.
A unanimous Security Council vote condemned
the test and imposed sanctions aimed at restraining its nuclear weapons program.
The move prompted North Korea's ambassador to the U.N. Pak Gil Yon to walk out
of the Security Council chambers. The resolution called the test "a clear
threat to international peace and security."