A Primer on Pyongyang’s Nuclear History and the Ensuing Diplomatic Failures –
North Korea pursued nuclear weapons to ensure security in a hostile international environment. During the Cold War, the threat shifted from conventional military aggression to nuclear aggression. The security dilemma was at an unstable high as world superpowers sought nuclear arms as a means of deterrence through mutually assured destruction. Developing and demonstrating the use of nuclear weapons technology was considered the ultimate deterrence against military aggression from rival states; obtaining nuclear weapons also marked states as “relevant actors” in international security. Today, nuclear weapons in North Korea serve as a counter-balance to the presence of the US in the ROK and its nuclear umbrella.
In the early 1950s the Soviet “Atoms for Peace” initiative (modeled after Eisenhower’s program of the same name) allowed several hundred North Korean students and researchers to be trained and educated at Soviet universities and nuclear research centers. The USSR built nuclear research facilities in Yongbyon in the 1960s, and by the 1970s the North Korean specialists trained at these facilities were able to launch a civilian nuclear fuel cycle without external assistance. The DPRK’s first nuclear reactor, a 5 MWe gas-graphite reactor, became operational in 1986. The state then built fuel fabrication facilities and a large-scale reprocessing facility, which allowed for the extraction of plutonium which could potentially be weaponized. These facilities were not declared to or inspected by the IAEA, as North Korea was not yet a signatory of the NPT and was under no legal obligation to do so; it only joined in 1985 on the condition that the Soviets would provide Light Water Reactors (LWRs; a promise never fulfilled as the USSR collapsed). The hitherto secret facilities were seen from US reconnaissance satellites in the 1980s, and the images were leaked by the South Korean government in 1989, making the world aware of North Korea’s indigenous nuclear program.
By 1992, North Korea was capable of facilitating a full plutonium fuel cycle: the 5 MWe gas-graphite reactor was producing electricity and heat for the local town, and approximately 6 kilograms of weapons-grade plutonium (enough for one bomb) per year. Until then, North Korea would not allow IAEA and international inspectors into its facilities; however inspectors were given access to the facilities that year following the US withdraw of all nuclear weapons from the ROK. The IAEA found the facilities to be operational, with two larger gas-graphite reactors under construction. The IAEA noted discrepancies between their findings at Yongbyon and the information provided by Pyongyang; North Korea responded by announcing its intent to withdraw from the NPT. Negotiations were stalemated. In 1994, the DPRK extracted 20–30 kilograms of plutonium from its reactor, and tensions between Washington and Pyongyang rose until former US President Jimmy Carter negotiated a freeze.
Enter Agreed Framework: North Korea halted its nuclear program but expanded its missile program, firing a long-range missile over Japan in 1998. It was speculated that North Korea explored HEU and may have received centrifuge technology from Pakistan; there is further evidence for these claims in the purchase of aluminum rods suitable for centrifuge rotors from Russia and an attempted purchase from Germany. Members of the US Congress during the Clinton administration disagreed with the provisions of the framework, arguing that it rewarded bad behavior; because funding was withheld for key provisions of the agreement, the US fell behind on its commitments early on. In 2002, the Bush administration accused North Korea of illegally pursuing a HEU program; Pyongyang responded by withdrawing of the NPT, expelling all IAEA inspectors, and continuing their then-halted enriched plutonium program. It has since been suggested that these allegations were largely unfounded, and it is highly unlikely that the DPRK had a HEU nuclear plant even if materials for production-scale uranium were present in the country.
In February 2005, North Korea announced that it had developed nuclear weapons. On 19 September 2005, the DPRK agreed to readmit IAEA inspectors, and dismantle its nuclear arsenal and WMD program in exchange for LWRs to replace indigenous North Korea nuclear power plants as per the Agreed Framework. This issue was tabled, and the following day North Korea announced that until the agreed LWRs were provided it would not dismantle its nuclear program or rejoin the NPT.
Following the NPT withdrawal, North Korea joined the Six Party Talks under pressure from Beijing. Though heralded as a diplomatic breakthrough at the time, the Talks yielded no progress until the fifth round in 2007 when North Korea agreed to denuclearize in exchange for fuel aid and normalized relations with the US and Japan. However, this progress was lost after the UNSC’s Presidential Statement condemning the DPRK’s failed satellite launch in 2009; North Korea quickly declared that it would be pulling out of the Talks and intended on resuming its nuclear program to increase its deterrent.
North Korea is not irrational in its actions: the Songun military policy which prioritizes obtaining a nuclear deterrent above all else was born out of a hostile Cold War environment as a means to protect its statehood. In an anarchical international system, ensuring state survival is the most rational action to be taken.