Dismantling North Korea's Nuclear Weapons Program Starts with Understanding Its History
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By Katherine Irajpanah
Writer, Lint Center for National Security Studies, Inc., and Special Contributor, In Homeland Security
On June 12, President Trump and Chairman Kim Jong-un of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea met in Singapore for a historic summit. During the meeting, the United States and North Korea established the diplomatic foundation for the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. The Singapore summit followed a year of intensified vitriol between the two countries and decades of unsuccessful attempts at halting North Korea’s quest for nuclear weapons.
The summit and forthcoming diplomatic talks highlight the need to understand the history of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program. The program, which has developed over the course of approximately six decades, has perplexed the past several presidential administrations. That suggests that the United States must approach the negotiating table cautiously and be prepared for lengthy, technical discussions.
The Beginnings of North Korea’s Nuclear Weapons Program
North Korea’s nuclear weapons program dates to the 1950s in the aftermath of the Korean War. The war, which pitted South Korea and the United States against North Korea and China, created a great sense of insecurity in the regime of the DPRK’s founder, Kim Il-sung.
DPRK nuclear ambitions largely grew from those insecurities. Weapons of mass destruction, including biological, chemical and nuclear weapons, presented the Kim regime with a potential guarantor of its security as well as a means of deterring the United States from invading North Korea.
Although North Korea’s nuclear program has largely been indigenous, Pyongyang received external technical assistance during its early years. In the 1960s, for example, the Soviet Union helped the North Koreans develop early nuclear reactors, which can provide a source of fissionable material to make a hydrogen bomb. Moreover, in the 1970s, North Korea modeled its short-range missiles on Soviet Scud missiles it had acquired from Egypt.
By the 1980s, North Korea had developed its own nuclear research institutions, uranium mining facilities, a fuel rod fabrication complex and a five-megawatt nuclear reactor. After signing the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1985, Kim secured further Soviet assistance to develop light water reactors (LWRs). With these facilities and other projects in place, Kim Il-sung successfully developed a nuclear bomb option and the foundation of North Korea’s current nuclear weapons program.
The Rise and Fall of Diplomatic Agreements
North Korea’s nuclear threat reached a flashpoint in 1994, when the United States and North Korea faced the risk of war as a result of the North’s provocations. After the 1994 crisis abated, Washington and Pyongyang held diplomatic talks that led to the 1994 Agreed Framework.
In that agreement, the United States promised security assurances and proliferation-resistant LWRs to North Korea. Also, North Korea promised to freeze and dismantle its nuclear reactors and submit to inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA).
Both parties, however, failed to live up to the agreement. As a result, the Agreed Framework fell apart.
North Korea Gradually Builds Nuclear Bomb Program
By late 2003, under Kim’s son, Kim Jong-Il, North Korea likely had acquired a nuclear bomb. To stem the North’s continued pursuit of nuclear weapons, the United States convened a new diplomatic channel, the Six-Party Talks. That channel involved North Korea, South Korea, the United States, Japan, Russia and China.
In 2005, the North Koreans announced that they would abandon their nuclear program. Nonetheless, North Korea reneged on its statement and conducted its first nuclear weapons test in 2006. In April 2009, after much back-and-forth communication over proposed arrangements, North Korea withdrew from the Six-Party talks.
Kim Jong-un and the DPRK Nuclear Program
In 2011, Kim Jong-un succeeded his late father, Kim Jong-Il, as “Supreme Leader” and accelerated the nuclear weapons program. To the young leader’s way of thinking, nuclear weapons would ensure the regime’s security and afford him a level of international prestige.
Under Kim Jong-un, North Korea conducted four new nuclear tests. On September 3, 2017, the official North Korean news agency, KCNA, reported the successful testing of a hydrogen bomb.
According to the Council on Foreign Relations, North Korea now has an estimated 15 to 20 nuclear weapons, “while U.S. intelligence believes the number to be between thirty and sixty bombs.” Experts also believe that Kim has a functioning intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). Some reports suggest that North Korea has the capability to miniaturize its nuclear weapons and mount them on an ICBM, the final element needed to bring about a nuclear holocaust.
International Community’s Response to North Korea’s Behavior
The international community has responded to North Korea’s behavior with intensified economic sanctions and diplomatic isolation. Even China, which has always served as a key economic and political ally of North Korea across the decades, has joined the international efforts to use sanctions to bring Kim to the negotiating table.
As a probable consequence of the mounting economic pressure of these sanctions and the rogue nation’s increasing international isolation, Kim Jong-un has turned away from bombastic rhetoric to diplomatic overtures. At the recent Singapore summit, Kim affirmed “his firm and unwavering commitment to the complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.”
Beyond the Singapore Summit
The history of North Korea’s nuclear program suggests that the diplomats involved in the forthcoming negotiations must now proceed deliberately and in a clear-eyed manner. To work toward the dismantlement of the North’s nuclear arsenal, the United States will need to consider some form of security reassurance for the Kim regime.
Furthermore, many details about North Korea’s nuclear program remain unknown, and North Korea has reneged on agreements in the past. Any agreement with North Korea will need to emphasize intrusive, on-the-ground verification to both monitor its progress on denuclearization and close the information gap on DPRK nuclear assets.
Finally, the world at large must understand that, as nuclear expert Siegfried S. Hecker estimated, DPRK disarmament could take over a decade to complete due to the technical demands of dismantling its nuclear complex.
Overall, the best path forward in addressing the North Korean nuclear threat is one that emphasizes diplomacy and recognizes the historical challenges associated with Pyongyang’s nuclear program.
About the Author
Katherine Irajpanah is an intern and writer at the Lint Center for National Security Studies. She is currently studying for her bachelor’s degree in international relations at Stanford University and works as a research assistant at the Center for International Security and Cooperation.