North Korea, the United States and Nuclear Weapons: A Brief History

North Korea Nuclear RebootAs one of the world’s most secretive and isolated countries, the communist state of North Korea and its pursuit of nuclear weapons is both worrisome and fascinating in study. The entwined history of the North and the United States is vital in understanding why the rogue state has for so long sought a nuclear deterrent. So how did it all start?

Since the beginning of the Korean War in 1950 the DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) has understood the genuine threat of a nuclear attack. That year saw President Truman’s deployment of 10 nuclear configured B-29 bombers within striking range of the North, claiming the use of nuclear weapons were under ‘active consideration’.

Almost as soon as the war had ended, Kim Il-sung, North Korea’s leader, ordered work on developing nuclear weapons to begin. At a time when American policy towards the DPRK was seen as antagonistic, Kim saw nuclear weapons as key to his regimes survival.

Anxiety in the North only worsened as the United States began to deploy Nuclear weapons into South Korea in 1958. Despite almost certainly violating the 1953 armistice agreement (which banned the placement of new weapons in Korea), the build-up was rapid; around 1000 were deployed in the South by the mid 1960’s.

Despite the gradual reduction and eventual removal in 1991 of these weapons on South Korean soil, the militarisation of the South makes it easier to understand why the DPRK sought the bomb. Even without nuclear weapons, the US still has a wide range of defensive weapons places along the Korean peninsula, as well as 37,000 troops stationed there.

In terms of its active nuclear development history, the North initially relied on the Soviet Union for supplies and knowledge. In the mid 1950’s the Soviets trained 250 DPRK technicians in Moscow and combining with Soviet scientists, established a nuclear facility at Yongbyon. Kim Il-Sung also approached the Chinese for help, asking Premier Zhou Enlai to include the DPRK within China’s nuclear umbrella. Despite Enlai’s refusal, the Chinese did offer to further train North Korean nuclear technicians in the late 1970’s. Although Kim did not sign up to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) until 1985, North Korea joined the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in 1974 and agreed to IAEA inspections of Yongbyon in 1977, complying with the NPT.

However, concerns from the West were raised significantly with the rapid advancement of the DPRK’s nuclear programme in the 1970’s and 80’s. After the North secured a larger, graphite, nuclear reactor from Moscow, the CIA reported a smokestack appearing over Yongbyon indicating nuclear reactions were taking place. Fears culminated in 1989, when intelligence reported a high explosive test at Yongbyon prompting further alarm in the West. Furthermore, Chinese technical support for the DPRK’s nuclear programme was completely withdrawn in 1990 on the basis that it was becoming too militarised. With the Soviet collapse in 1991 and withdrawal of support from the Chinese, Kim was more isolated than ever, hardening his resolve to seek a North Korean nuclear deterrent.

It’s important to note then, that the height of panic from the United States and the South came in 1993 – 1994, when the North announced its intention to withdraw from the NPT and fully commit to developing their own nuclear weapons.

The response from the United States was clear. President Clinton ordered plans for a pre-emptive strike on nuclear facilities in the DPRK to be made, with the threat of all-out war between the two countries higher than ever before.

Irans DemandsThe only other option, in the eyes of the US, was last minute engagement with the North to prevent military action. Former President Jimmy Carter was utilised as an envoy by President Clinton in a ‘carrot and stick’ approach in the form of an agreed framework.

The agreed framework was simple in its concept; Kim would agree to freeze the North’s nuclear programme and in return, the Americans would provide two proliferation resistant light water reactors to aid the DPRK’s fledgling civilian power generation programme. In addition to this, the US would not just provide fuel and the reactors, but agreed to lift sanctions of the DPRK and move towards normalising relations with the country.

Unfortunately, the deal went awry. In spite of talks continuing with Kim Jong-Il following the death of his father Kim-Il-Sung, neither country kept their word. Both parties have subsequently blamed one another for the failure of the deal. The US have blamed the North for secretly enriching uranium while the DPRK maintains the US’ failure to lift sanctions and normalise relations caused the deal to collapse.

By 2002, the deal was dead. Relations between the two nations were further strained following President Bush’s denouncement of North Korea in his first State of the Union address that year, during which he named the DPRK as part of an ‘axis of evil’ along with Iran and Iraq.

So where does North Korea stand today in regard to its nuclear weapons development? Under the son (Kim Jong-Il) and grandson (Kim Jong-Un) of Kim Il-Sung, nuclear bomb tests took place in 2006, 2009 and 2013 and a claimed detonation of a hydrogen bomb was made in January of this year (though leading nuclear experts in the West remain sceptical of this). The future of North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme still remains unclear. However, the aggressive nature of Kim Jong-Un’s threats to the South and the US has left the West more concerned than ever, and a volatile dictator seeking the ultimate weapon should never be underestimated.

Josh Graham



French, Paul (2005) ‘North Korea: The Paranoid Peninsula’, London: Zed Books

BBC, (2016) ‘North Korea’s nuclear programme: How advanced is it?’ (Online) Available at: (Accessed 30/11/2016)

Clemens, Walter C (2016) ‘North Korea and the World: Human Rights, Arms Control, and Strategies for Negotiation’, University Press of Kentucky

Hugh Gusterson (2008) ‘Paranoid, Potbellied Stalinist Gets Nuclear Weapons’, The Non-Proliferation Review


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