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A Global Deception: The Development of the North Korean Nuclear Weapons


Estella Jung
JSIS 429 International Nuclear Nonproliferation
Dr. Halvor Undem
University of Washington

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The Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) was created for a
peaceful use of nuclear energy globally and to protect the world from mass weapons of
destruction. Of the 189 participating countries of the treaty, there are nuclear states, non-nuclear
states, and non-signatory states with nuclear weapons. However, there is a peculiar case of a
single country North Korea that was an NPT state then withdrew. In my paper I will be
examining the reasons why North Korea was able to continue with its nuclear program after
signing the NPT. This paper will discuss what actions North Korea took to be able to get away
with creating nuclear weapons prior to withdrawing from the treaty, how its actions remained
undiscovered for so long by the international community, and how its weapons program is in
existence to this day. This paper will focus on diplomatic efforts of the international community
to persuade North Korea to abandon its nuclear program and North Koreas response to these
efforts. It will also highlight the flaws in negotiating efforts on the part of the countries present at
the six-party talks.
This paper features scholarly works on the North Korean nuclear program, as well as
newspaper articles and publications from academic journals. This paper opens with a background
of North Koreas initial acquisition of nuclear technology from the USSR and discusses in depth
the development of its nuclear ambition and what steps it took to continue the development of
nuclear weapons in the midst of conflict with and continuous pressure from the international
community to disarm.

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On December 8, 1953, President Dwight D. Eisenhower gave the Atoms for Peace speech
at the UN National Assembly in New York. The purpose of this speech was to advocate for the
peaceful use of atomic energy globally and to promote global nonproliferation in the midst of the
Cold War1. Following this speech, many countries were able to obtain nuclear technology and
positively use it as energy. However, unlike most states, North Korea began to use the nuclear
technology it attained to pursue a weapons program. The tension present between the North and
South following the division of the Korean peninsula after the Korean War, along with North
Koreas desire to secure its power in the international community lead to its pursuit of a nuclear
program. However, unlike other non-P5 states that developed nuclear weapons, North Korea was
much more difficult for the international community to cope with.
In this paper, I will examine the process of North Koreas nuclear weapons program
development from when it obtained its initial research reactor to getting away with not abiding
by the NPT and IAEA safeguards it had agreed to, and continuing its weapons development. I
argue that North Korea was able to pursue a nuclear weapons program without the international
communitys knowledge while it was under the NPT because IAEA inspections didnt take place
for a significant amount of time after North Korea obtained its first reactor, giving them plenty of
time to have developed weapons-grade plutonium. Furthermore, after the beginning of its
weapons program, North Korea was able to continue developing weapons because the diplomatic
efforts of the NPT states failed to work. North Korea got away with continuously going back and
forth on its word of halting its weapons program in return for aid. North Korea fooled the
international community year after year but the international community was too lenient in terms


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of the sanctions they posed, and they failed to pressure North Korea enough to prompt them to
terminate the program.
This paper will be divided into four parts chronologically: Part 1Beginnings (1950s
70s), Part 2Development of the Nuclear Program (19801995), Part 3Leading Up to the
Official Withdrawal from the NPT (19962003), and Part 4Aftermath (2003Present). Part 1
will discuss how North Korea obtained its first nuclear reactor from the USSR and began its
nuclear ambition, Part 2 will be about the development of nuclear stockpiles and its weapons
program being discovered by the international community, Part 3 will illustrate the events that
led to escalation of conflict and North Koreas withdrawal from the NPT, and Part 4 will address
what happened in the aftermath of withdrawing from the nonproliferation treaty how the
international community reacted to North Koreas actions and how North Korea continued to
pursue weapons development regardless.
Part 1 Beginnings (1950s 1970s)
In 1952, the Atomic Energy Research Institute was founded in North Korea. But it wasnt
until a decade later in 1962 when North Koreas nuclear program really got started, in
correspondence with its increasing ambition for obtaining nuclear weapons. In 1963, North
Korea asked the Soviet Union to help it create nuclear weapons but the Soviets rejected this
proposal.2 When North Korea asked China about extending support on its development of
weapons, China also opposed3. However, the Soviet Union agreed to help North Korea develop
peaceful nuclear energy and said they would help train the North Korean scientists as well4. The
Soviet experts helped construct the Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center near


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Pyongyang and they began assembling the IRT-2000 research reactor in 1963, which they
completed by 19655. Despite being in the midst of the Cold War, both the USSR and the U.S. did
not believe more countries should create weapons of mass destruction. The International
community held a collective view on the importance of nonproliferation at this time.
Although the Soviets only provided fuel for the IRT-2000 reactor it had given to North
Korea, North Korea was able to use this reactor to build more nuclear facilities later and
advanced this 2MW light reactor to 8MW6. In 1977, North Korea signed a safeguards agreement
with both the IAEA and the USSR because the USSR provided the fuel for the reactor7.
However, within two years in 1979, North Korea began to build a second research reactor in
Yongbyon on its own. The new reactor went on to be an ore processing and fuel rod fabrication
plant, but because most of North Koreas nuclear development took place internally, the process
of development was very slow8. In the late 1970s, North Korea possessed fuel rod fabrication
facilities and the Yongbyon 5MW nuclear reactor, which was modeled after the UKs Calder
Hall Reactor, was completed9. The USSR did not expect North Korea to be able to produce
subsequent reactors on its own because the USSR only provided enough fuel for the initial
reactor it provided the country with. Due to fact that the USSR and IAEA were unsuspecting of
North Koreas actions, North Korea was able to go further down its nuclear weapons path in
secrecy. Even though the North Koreans deceitful move and goals for creating weapons of mass
destruction is nothing to applaud, it is still astounding that North Korea was able begin a
weapons program on its own after being rejected by both of its allies Russia and China.


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Part 2 Development of Nuclear Program (1980 1995)

In the 1980s, North Korea actively began developing its nuclear weapons program. From
1980-85, North Korea built a factory in Yongbyon to refine yellowcake10, a type of uranium
concentrate powder which is an intermediate step in the processing of uranium ores. North Korea
also completed building a reprocessing plant used to separate plutonium from spent nuclear fuel
at the Yongbyon site, constructed a 5 MWe gas-cooled graphite-moderated nuclear reactor for
plutonium production, and finished a second 50 MWe nuclear reactor11. During this time period,
North Korea was able to build a solid foundation for its weapons program through the
construction of reactors and reprocessing plants.
However, around 1985, the U.S. discovered through satellite photos that there was new
construction at a nuclear complex near Yongbyon and its intelligence agents began to suspect
that North Korea was in the process of creating nuclear weapons12. Although North Korea had
ratified the NPT in 1985, it didnt complete the safeguards agreement with the IAEA until 1992.
In early 1993, the IAEA inspection in North Korea failed because the inspectors could not trace
the origins of 100 grams of plutonium, which suggested that North Korea had reprocessed more
plutonium than it had declared,13 and that it had turned the spent fuel from the reactor into
weapons-grade plutonium. But when the IAEA requested another inspection, North Korea
refused and announced its withdrawal from the NPT but then took it back before the withdrawal
took effect14. This initial uncooperative behavior foreshadowed the hard time North Korea would




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give to the global community by not abiding by any rules or agreements in the future if it was in
the interests of its nuclear weapons development.
Due to North Koreas non-cooperative behavior towards the inspections and near
withdrawal from the NPT, the situation began to escalate quickly. As a result, in 1994, President
Carter went to Pyongyang15 to meet with Kim Il Sung and discuss the situation diplomatically.
Later that year, the U.S. and North Korea adopted the Agreed Framework, under which the U.S.
government would supply two light water reactors to North Korea in return for North Korea
halting its plutonium programs and discontinuing its nuclear weapons programs16. The reactors
the U.S. agreed to supply were considered to be more proliferation resistant than North Koreas
existing graphite-moderated reactors17. Coming across North Koreas suspicious behavior made
taking steps to control North Koreas nuclear activities a top priority for the international
community and although, many remained greatly mistrusting of North Korea, the U.S. believed
that switching out the reactors would be the first step to curb possible threat.
Part 3 Leading Up to the Official Withdrawal from the NPT (1996 2003)
Even though the inspections took place in 1993, North Korea still did not make an initial
announcement on the amount of plutonium it possesses in 199618. Due to this, it was very
difficult for the IAEA to confirm that North Korea wasnt using its plutonium to develop
weapons. In 2002, the U.S. discovered that HEU (Highly Enriched Uranium) materials were
transferred from Pakistan to North Korea in exchange for ballistic missile technology19. By this




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time, Pakistan disclosed that North Korea got access to Pakistans nuclear energy in the late
1990s20. When the U.S. discovered that North Korea was pursuing uranium enrichment
technology, as well as plutonium reprocessing technologies despite the Agreed Framework they
settled on years ago, the U.S. decided to pose oil sanctions on North Korea and halt all other aid
as well21. The United States rightfully took this course of action because North Korea did not
abide by the agreement both parties consented to. In addition, the fact that North Korea was
trying to enrich uranium was a threat to the nonproliferation goals.
Following this incident, President George W. Bush claimed in his State of the Union
Speech that North Korea was threating world peace through its actions22. North Korea then said
that Americas decision to halt oil shipments gives them no option but to reactivate its nuclear
facilities for energy generation23. North Korea went in the direction of needing to continue
developing weapons to protect itself from the tyrannical U.S. By this point, North Korea did not
show any signs of backing down. The U.S.s strategy to deter North Koreas nuclear ambition
was turned back on them and North Korea was actually using it was justification for why they
are trying to develop weapons. After much blaming between the two parties on whos fault it
was that the agreement fell apart, the 1994 Agreed Framework between North Korea and the
U.S. officially ended.
After the end of the Agreed Framework, North Korea removed the IAEA inspectors from
its country and also began removing all the monitoring devices that were present in Yongbyon24.



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Furthermore, it transferred 1000 fuel rods to the facility and this made the international
community very nervous25. It wasnt only the U.S. that tried to deter North Koreas nuclear
weapons upon discovering its motives. Countries like Japan tried to make cooperative offers as
well, and in 2003, South Korea asked China to pressure North Korea to stop its weapons
program and Russia also offered to take part in persuading the country26. That year, North Korea
said that it would place a hold on its nuclear program in exchange for American concessions but
an agreement wasnt reached and North Korea withdrew from the NPT for the second time this
time permanently27. After North Koreas withdrawal from the NPT, the international community
was even more shocked because this was North Koreas way of saying that they had no intention
of abiding by the nonproliferation treaty any longer or having its facilities be supervised. North
Korea became a lot bolder by this time and openly declared its motives. It was apparent to all the
eyes that were on North Korea that it was set on continuing its weapons development. North
Koreas action wasnt taken well by the international community, which decided that it was time
to negotiate with North Korea. After numerous diplomatic efforts, North Korea agreed to attend
the first of a series of six-party talks involving South Korea, China, the USSR, Japan, and the
Part 4 Aftermath (2003 present)
In 2004, North Korea allowed a group of U.S. experts to visit the Yongbyon Nuclear
Facility. U.S. nuclear scientist, Siegried Hecker, told Congress that the scientists who visited






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Yongbyon saw what appeared to be weapons-grade plutonium but they didnt see any evidence
of a nuclear bomb29. When U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, met with North Korean Foreign
Minister Paek Namsun, Minister Paek expressed that North Korea had no intention of giving up
its nuclear ambitions30. The U.S.s continuous effort to get North Korea to halt its nuclear testing
proved to be futile because North Korea was very persistent on attaining nuclear weapons.
In the following year, North Korea admitted to having nuclear weapons but claimed that
it will end its nuclear program if South Korea provided food aid, and South Korea even offered
to give huge amounts of electricity to North Korea if it decided to disarm31. North Korea also
said it will give up its nuclear activities and rejoin the NPT if the U.S. gave them the two civilian
reactors it promised in the Agreed Framework in the past but the U.S. refused and North Korea
said in that case it will continue its weapons program32. In 2006, North Korea conducted its first
underground nuclear test, detonating a plutonium based device with a yield of 3-4 kilotons.
However, some western scientists were skeptical on whether the test was really successful
because the explosion was equivalent to 500 metric tons of TNT, which was 24-50 times less
powerful than the 1998 nuclear tests of India and Pakistan33. Even though other countries do not
think the lesser capability of North Koreas nuclear weapons makes it alright to just let them be
and allow them to continue testing, the skepticism partially contributes to why stricter
approaches were not taken in response to the North Koreas activities. Since, countries have
many issues to take care of other than North Korea, they only respond when they feel that a new
violation North Korea made is too great to just ignore.


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Later that year, the UN Security Council passed the UN Resolution 1718 that imposed
sanctions on luxury goods in North Korea but China and Russia didnt fully support this34. Either
way, the sanctions on luxury goods wasnt enough to have an impact on the North Korean
economy and it didnt help that China and Russia continued to protect North Korea. In 2007
North Korea tried to carry out a new round of negotiations saying that it will shut down its main
nuclear facility in exchange for 50,000 metric tons of fuel aid, with more to follow after the site
becomes completely incapacitated35. The IAEA inspectors later confirmed that North Korea shut
down its Yongbyon reactor and aid was distributed to North Korea36. The international
community saw this as progress and a step in the right direction. It truly believed that North
Korea was going to abandon its nuclear goals.
Less than a year after receiving aid, in 2008, North Korea didnt allow IAEA
investigators to conduct further inspections and consequently the aid agreement was destroyed37.
Furthermore, North Korea conducted its second underground nuclear test38. North Korea took
further steps towards weapons development by constructing a light-water reactor and uranium
enrichment facility39. This revealed that North Korea is not a reliable counterpart to form
agreements with because it always backs out whenever it wants and it shows no signs of giving
up any aspect of its nuclear goals. In 2012, North Korea agreed to place a moratorium on longrange missile tests and allow IAEA inspectors to monitor Yongbyon, and as a result, the U.S.
said it would ship food aid to the country40. However, not long after, all the negotiations were



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reversed once again when they carried out a third nuclear test underground41. It is unbelievable
how many times this exact pattern of appearing to conform and backing out took place, and
exactly in the same context too. From what the world has seen so far, North Korea is the master
of deception and dishonesty. It would not be wise for the U.S. to fall for North Koreas tactics
anymore in the future because the outcome is already clear.
In 2015, North Korea declared that its nuclear weapons are capable of hitting the United
States42. Although it is a fact that the number of nuclear warheads North Korea possesses is
much lower in comparison to P-5 states, it is difficult to confirm how much they are actually
capable of due to its extremely secretive nature, and it is difficult to predict what they will do
next, which makes the international community more nervous. Also, now from the pattern of
negotiations, it is difficult for anyone to believe that North Korea will disarm and give up its
weapons despite appearing like they will.
North Korea is the sole country thus far that has withdrawn from the NPT twice and has
been a constant pain for the international community. North Korea deceived the entire world by
initially seeking peaceful nuclear energy and appearing to adhere to safeguards and
nonproliferation but then secretly pursuing a weapons program. Since it took a long time for
IAEA inspectors to arrive in North Korea after the ratification of the NPT, North Korea was able
to get so far in the weapons development process to begin with. Also, because the IAEA didnt
have enough enforcing power to inspect the facilities and order the discontinuation of the



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program, North Korea was able to continue its testing and development. After withdrawing from
the treaty and declaring that it was indeed creating weapons, it was still able to get away with it
because other countries lacked the power to stop North Korea.
Furthermore, North Korea mastered the technique of trickery and deception by saying
that it will cooperate and allow IAEA inspectors to inspect, then driving them out, as well as
continuously saying it will halt or dispose of its nuclear program in return for aid, then following
the agreements with another test. This pattern of negotiation and aid followed by more testing
has been continuing between North Korea and other nations for decades now. At this point, it is
safe to say that giving aid in return for disarmament is not an effective strategy. Even though the
world has been deceived so many times by North Korea, it is still afraid to take extreme
measures and provoke North Korea to do something irrational.
Even to this day, North Korea is still not showing any signs of giving up its nuclear
ambition and it is one of the biggest security threats the international community faces. Although
it has announced its nuclear capabilities to the world, it is difficult to know how far it really is in
the development process because it is such an isolated and secretive country. But a great concern
for the international community is not only about North Korean nuclear capabilities but also the
possibility that North Korea will sell its nuclear capabilities to the Middle East. The step the
international community needs to take now is to take on a different approach from the past.
Although using force will not make the situation any better, other methods such as stricter
sanctions or better diplomacy may work better than trying to persuade them to give up its
weapons program without posing any significant consequences.

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