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North Korea's Nuclear Program

The Genie Is Out of the Bottle - Can We Get It Back In?
Herbert Wulf

On 13 February 2007, at the fifth round of the six-party talks between North Korea,1 China, Japan, Russia, South Korea, and the United States, an agreement was signed by the participating governments which could potentially lead to the stop of the North Korean nuclear program. Years of negotiations, with many disappointments, preceded this round of talks, and many issues still remain unresolved. Prior to the governments’ accord on joint efforts for a smooth implementation of a road map, a similar agreement had been signed in September 2005. In the North Korean issue, signs of progress have always been followed by breakdowns or stalemates of the six-party talks.

Phases of Rising Tensions

On 9 October 2006, North Korea conducted an explosive underground nuclear test in pursuit of its ambition to become a nuclear weapon state. With this explosion the North Korean genie is out of the bottle. It was the last of a series of provocative acts which led the United Nations Security Council – under Resolution 1718 of 14 October 20062 – to call for sanctions against that country.

For several years, arms control diplomacy had tried for several decades to stop the DPRK nuclear program. In a first phase during the 1980s, the US government tried successfully, in cooperation with the Soviet Union, to convince North Korea to join the NPT. The country acceded to the treaty in 1985 and allowed inspections of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in 1992 after lengthy and controversial negotiations. The two Koreas signed a bilateral agreement in 1991 aiming at the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. So far, this policy has not been implemented since no agreement on bilateral inspections could be reached.

In a second arms control phase, the so called Agreed Framework, was signed in 1994 between the United States and North Korea. Economic assistance, the promise to deliver two light-water reactors and international pressure persuaded the isolated Kim government to stop the construction of its nuclear plants in Yongbyong. Disagreement arose between the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and the North Korean government about the existence of plutonium generated in a 5 MW graphite reactor which had been completed in 1986. While North Korea claimed that just a few grams of plutonium could not be accounted for, IAEA inspectors reported missing an estimated 15 kg plutonium separated by reprocessing of 8000 fuel rods. This material would be sufficient for the production of a few nuclear war heads.3

In a third phase, the Bush Administration charged North Korea in October 2002 with secretly engaging in a uranium enrichment program. Washington suspected that North Korea had, in breach of the Agreed Framework, engaged on a secret parallel path towards acquiring nuclear weapons material. Prior to that, in August 1998, the test of a long-range Taepo-dong-1 missile raised tensions in the region that had been eased temporarily by additional US food supplies and a North Korean moratorium on the test of long-range missiles. The export of missile technology by North Korea, however, has continued all the while. The DPRK government claims until today that this technology is exported exclusively for economic profit and that an export stop would have to be compensated for by international assistance.4

The rising tension and the war of words between Pyongyang and Washington escalated after the October 2002 confrontation about the alleged uranium enrichment.5 The Kim government withdrew from its NPT membership on 10 January 2003 and declared to posses nuclear weapons on 10 February 2005. The North Korean government responded to pressure from the Bush Administration by withdrawing from international agreements and testing a nuclear device on 9 October 2006.

Defiantly, Kim Jong Il’s government called the UN sanctions a declaration of war on the grounds that the UN resolution “was based on the scenario of the US keen to destroy the socialist system of Korean-style.”6 The question for the international community was and still is: what can be done to reverse North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme, to try to get the genie back into the bottle, and to uphold the credibility of the nuclear non-proliferation regime? Or is it naïve to believe that nuclear ambitions will ever be given up once weapons have been produced?

North Korea’s policy can be seen as the test for the future viability of the NPT and as a confrontation of the UN in its role as the guardian of arms control treaties. The policy of North Korea demonstrates a strong ambition to create a nuclear and a long-range missile program. But at the same time, the Kim government has always maintained that it continues to pursue a policy of complete denuclearization and that it is ready to negotiate the stop of its program.

Although the September 2005 round of negotiations led to a joint declaration on a road map, the major stumbling block was the sequence of steps to be taken. Who will make the first step and what follows next? How intrusive can IAEA inspections be? When – if at all – will light-water reactors be supplied to North Korea? And what is the status of the highly enriched uranium program in the DPRK? A further complication which delayed negotiations during 2006 were US financial sanctions against the DPRK, which severely harmed the North Korean economy. Indeed, one can argue that the nuclear test may have been an act primarily designed to reverse these financial sanctions.

Varied interests

The lack of progress during the first few rounds of the six-party talks, which were moderated by China, was mainly due to the tough stance of both the governments of the DPRK and the United States. While the US government requested a “complete, verifiable, and irreversible” stop of the nuclear program as a precondition for negotiations, the DPRK government wants to pursue a step-by-step approach with actions on both sides, but first of all a security guarantee by the United States.


Figure 1: Monument in Pyongyang symbolizing the corner stones of society: workers, farmers, intellectuals

In addition, the six-party talks have always suffered from a lack of common interest among the participating governments. Internal politics play an important role both in Pyongyang and in Washington. Nothing less than the survival of the Kim government is at stake in North Korea. During the negotiations, the North Korean government left the negotiating table several times. This behaviour must be seen against the background of competing economic, political, and security interests. The North Korean economy is in a state of despair. Lack of food has led to catastrophic malnutrition for millions of North Koreans and to the death of probably several hundred thousands if not millions of people. Energy shortages affect industrial production, cause constant breakdowns of the public transportation system, and result in insufficient heating during the cold winters. Several donors have withdrawn from North Korea in explicit reaction to the nuclear program.

Judgment about North Korea’s internal politics must remain speculative since very little information about the isolated regime is available. Nevertheless, a few scenarios seem plausible:

1. Nuclear weapons as a deterrent: North Korean officials have repeatedly emphasized that they feel “cornered” by US pressure. Especially the US National Security Strategy of 2002 with the emphasis on “pre-emptive” strikes rings alarms bells in Pyongyang.7 It seems that the military sees the quest for nuclear weapons as an important deterrent against a possible US military invasion. This scenario presumes that North Korea never took the negotiations and its international commitments under the NPT and the Agreed Framework seriously.

2. Nuclear weapons as a bargaining chip: The North Korean government is prepared to stop its nuclear program if it gets compensated by security guarantees and economic assistance and cooperation. Both the Agreed Framework of 1994 and the February 2007 Beijing agreement point to that direction. North Korea’s official position has always been to emphasize its willingness for negotiations if the conditions are right.

3. Pursuit of parallel options: The DPRK government pursues parallel options of building up its nuclear and missile program while negotiating its complete dismantlement at the same time. This seems a plausible scenario as long as the Kim government feels threatened.

One of the more fundamental reasons for the repeated negotiation deadlock in the past is that the five countries involved with North Korea have no uniform interests in the region. While they all want to stop the nuclear program, the means of doing so vary greatly. Whereas the US favours isolating Kim Jong Il’s regime or even forcibly changing it, China, Russia, and to some extent South Korea, prefer economic and political engagement. Hence, the latter trio has been reluctant to pursue the strict sanctions favoured by the Bush Administration. In the absence of consensus, North Korea seems to get away with its policy of brinkmanship. In principle there appear to be five approaches which could be pursued by the international community:8


1. Wait and see: This policy seems risky since North Korea continues to improve its nuclear and missile capability. Simply “playing for time” is more likely to see the situation deteriorate rather than improve.

2. Military measures: Launching a military strike against North Korea – either by trying to deliver a decisive blow against its nuclear weapons facilities or by seeking to overthrow the regime – are unlikely to succeed and more probable to precipitate a major war on the Korean peninsula in which many thousands of innocent Koreans would die.

3. Isolation: Move beyond making North Korea merely an international outcast and completely isolate the country by ending all communication. Given past experience, however, it seems doubtful that the North Korean government would give in to such pressure. External pressure has led North Korea to “tighten its belt.” For an isolation policy to be successful, the unlikely agreement of all other parties would be required.

4. Forced regime change: How would this be brought about? Ruling out military actions, so far the Bush Administration has offered rhetoric rather than a concept for overthrowing the governments of “rogue states.” Except for the US government, none of the states involved favours an abrupt collapse of the regime in Pyongyang: the consequences would be incalculable, especially for South Korea and China who would have to cope with millions of refugees.

5. Economic engagement and security guarantees: Given North Korea’s dire economic and social conditions, the DPRK government has repeatedly announced that it is prepared to cooperate with the international community and to stop its nuclear weapons program if US nuclear weapons are verifiably withdrawn from South Korea and the DPRK receives security guarantees and economic assistance.9 It might be worth to look into details about possible conditions of such cooperation and the likely price of North Korean compliance.


Figure 2: Displaying the origins of the official policy in Pyongyang

Already during the Clinton Administration, proponents of a tough North Korea policy maintained the position that the “blackmail” policy of North Korea should not be honoured by cooperation with this “rogue state.”10 Others, in contrast, emphasized that policy aims such as regime change or human rights improvements should have a lower priority than attempt to stop the nuclear and missile programs.11 While the Clinton Administration pursued a policy of “carrots and sticks,” the Bush Administration switched to a policy of pressure and isolation of North Korea.12 This course of action, however, was controversially assessed within the Administration. Thus, no coherent North Korea policy was applied. While the State Department, both under Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, occasionally signalled willingness for cooperation and negotiations, the Department of Defense and the Office of the Vice President pursed their hard-line policy. Charles L. Pritchard, the former North Korea special envoy of the Bush Administration, blames the government for having made a mess of the negotiations with the Kim government.13 The result is over half a dozen bombs’ worth of plutonium, the departure of North Korea from the NPT, and a nuclear test.

After the October 2002 showdown about the alleged North Korean highly enriched uranium program, which was the starting point for the present nuclear crisis, the North Koreans reacted with anger and declared: “Nobody would be so naive as to think that the DPRK would sit idle under such situation.” Furthermore they declared that “the DPRK was entitled to possess not only nuclear weapons but any type of weapon more powerful than that so as to defend its sovereignty and right to existence from the ever-growing nuclear threat by the U.S.”14 Interestingly, the evidence for the existence of a HEU program was rather weak,15 and probably the US government offered a face-saving way for both sides to defuse their differences on this issue in its bilateral negotiations with North Korea in March 2007 in New York.16 Now, five years after the “axis of evil” speech, the Bush Administration finds itself signing an agreement that is almost identical to the one negotiated by the Clinton Administration and criticised so heavily by Bush. It looks like a complete reversal of the US North Korea policy.


Figure 3: Statue of Kim Sung Il, "the Great Leader" and founder of the DPRK, in Pyongyang

But before this latest turn of events, the Bush government made a number of conceptual, strategic and tactical mistakes: Conceptually, it was wrong to assume that North Korea would give in to US pressure. On the contrary, hard-line reactions in Pyongyang were the answer to US hard-line rhetoric and sanctions. Strategically, it was a mistake to label North Korea as part of the “axis of evil,” thus assuming that the Kim government is at the same level as al Qaeda in the US “war on terror.” On the tactical level, the Bush Administration failed to design a coherent North Korea policy with several shifts back and forth between diplomatic signals and hard-line policies.17

China plays an important role as a moderator in the negotiations. It has an interest in the stability of the region and pursues two main aims: to stop the nuclear program and to prevent an abrupt regime change in North Korea. A nuclear Korea could lead to a domino effect in South East Asia with Japan, South Korea, and possibly Taiwan as emerging nuclear powers. The breakdown of the present regime in Pyongyang is not in China’s interest, and under no circumstances has China an interest in a united Korea under US dominance. Thus, China pushed the six-party talks by putting pressure on North Korea and reminding the US government that it has to put something substantially on the table in order to stop North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme. Similarly, South Korea does not want North Korea to implode in a democratic revolution or a popular uprising. Seoul would rather want a slow process of transformation of the North to open up a road to eventual unification. 

A Shift in Policy: Entering Reality

The February 2007 Beijing agreement is a breakthrough in this long-lasting nuclear crisis. But the North Korean nuclear program has not yet been stopped, and the open questions of the September 2005 roadmap have not to be answered yet. As compared to the last decades, however, there is now reason for some optimism. In the agreement the six parties reaffirmed their common goal of denuclearization of the Korean peninsula and committed to take the following coordinated steps:

1. The DPRK will shut down and seal for the purpose of the eventual abandonment the Yongbyong nuclear facility and invite the IAEA for inspections.

2. The DPRK will discuss with the other parties a list of all relevant nuclear programs.

3. The DPRK and the US will start bilateral talks with the aim of full diplomatic relations.

4. The DPRK and Japan will start bilateral talks aimed at normalization of relations.

5. The parties agreed to cooperate in economic, energy, and humanitarian assistance to the DPRK.18

The sealing of the Yongbyong nuclear facility would take place within 60 days in return for a first delivery of 50.000 tons of fuel oil; in total up to the equivalent of 1 million ton of heavy fuel oil would be supplied. The first steps in this direction have been taken. IAEA inspectors have signalled North Korean compliance. During the US-North Korea talks in September 2007 North Korea agreed to disclose all of its nuclear activities and disable its nuclear programs by the end of 2007. In the meantime, the first supplies of fuel oil arrived in North Korea. The October 2007 meeting of the South Korean President, Roh Moo Hyun, with Kim Jong Il in Pyongyang, after a lapse of contact over seven years, is a hopeful sign.

Why was this landmark agreement possible now? It is mainly pressure on the main players which made the February 2007 Beijing agreement achievable. Three main reasons are obvious:

1. The North Korean nuclear test of October 2006 made it absolutely clear to the international community that the nuclear crisis had reached a critical stage. Despite doubts on the technical capabilities of the North Korean nuclear engineers and scientists, it became clear that the Kim government did not only bluff (as was the case in October 2005) but that it wanted to push its way into the exclusive nuclear club. If further nuclear proliferation was to be prevented, immediate action was required.

2. The North Korean government too was under pressure. The sanctions agreed upon in the UN were intended to restrict the import of goods and services by North Korea even further. Importantly, the Chinese government reduced its economic assistance, especially food and oil supplies. In unusually harsh language the Chinese called North Korea’s behaviour “brazen,” a term Beijing used the last time decades ago during the tensions with the United States. Beijing made it clear to its erstwhile communist ally and friend that it would not tolerate a nuclear armed North Korea and played a classical policy of “carrots and sticks.” As soon as North Korea signalled its preparedness to return to the six-party talks, China increased its economic assistance to North Korea.

3. The agreement marks a major change of course for the Bush Administration, which has been beset by six years of internal arguments whether to negotiate with North Korea or to squeeze the Kim government until it collapses. This surprising turn-around of the Bush Administration’s North Korea policy made the February 2007 Beijing agreement possible. Given the fact that the US is bogged down in Iraq, the increasing problems and lack of progress in Afghanistan, and the looming nuclear crisis with Iran, Bush needed a foreign policy breakthrough on another front. Furthermore, China, South Korea, and Russia have strongly urged the US to seriously negotiate with North Korea. Over six years the US government had refused direct negotiations with the Kim government and had insisted on a stop of the nuclear program as a precondition for negotiations about Korean security, diplomatic recognition, and economic assistance. This position has been given up now, although critics like John Bolton, the former US ambassador to the United Nations, continue to criticise the agreement since, according to him, it rewards North Korea with delivery of fuel and assistance before the country’s nuclear capacity is dismantled. The present agreement is based on a step by step or action for action approach. Furthermore, the US government agreed to discuss the financial sanctions against North Korea and indicated that some of the funds blocked by the US in a bank in Macau could be legally transferred to the DPRK.


Figure 4: Bill board in Pyongyang: stressing the importance of the "revolutionary armed forces"

Many controversial issues still need to be resolved, and the discussions in the working groups agreed upon in the February Beijing agreement have already proved difficult and painstaking. How intrusive will IAEA inspections be and what will they tell us about the US claim of the clandestine HEU program which was the starting point for the crisis in 2002? Did the Kim government lie about this program or was the US claim unsubstantiated? Who might loose their face? What will the inspections uncover about the nuclear test? Was it largely a technical failure as Western experts presume and did the Kim government bluff without a joker in her hands? Is the US shift in policy sustainable, and will the government eventually give the North Koreans the much wanted security guarantees? Will North Korea really give up its nuclear weapons and agree to dismantle all nuclear facilities with relevance for military use for good? North Korea has been famous for driving a hard bargaining position: What will the economic price tag for the international community be?

At the time of writing, the February 2007 agreement is implemented according to plan. Thus, there is reason for optimism. A team of experts, led by the United States, started work early in November 2007 to disable three of the Yongbyong nuclear facilities: the reactor, the plant that fabricates reactor fuel from natural uranium, and the chemical reprocessing plant where weapons-grade plutonium is separated from the spent fuel-rods. Whether those nuclear facilities will eventually not only be disabled but fully dismantled is still open. It seems, however, that North Korea has shifted its attitude. While in the past North Korea often simply refused to cooperate in the technicalities, now they are trying to convince US experts that they are serious in their efforts to make the agreement a success. The North Korean readiness is rewarded by intensified economic assistance. China has just announced to set up a 10 billion dollar fund to help Chinese firms to build infrastructure in the impoverished country. South Korea continues to supply economic assistence and proposed a meeting of the leaders of the United States, China, North Korea, and South Korea to formally end the war that has split the Korean peninsula for more than 50 years.

There is one important lesson from the North Korean nuclear policy and its underground test: the international community needs to negotiate directly even with hostile regimes and there is reason to hope for a reversal even of nuclear programs.

This article was written for the INESAP Information Bulletin in November 2007.


Herbert Wulf is a Professor of International Relation and Chief Technical Advisor on arms control to UNDP in Pyongyang (2002–2007). He has visited North Korea on several occasions.

  1. 1. The official name of the country is Democratic Peoples’ Republic of Korea (DPRK).
  2. 2. UN Security Council, Resolution 1718 (2006) adopted at its 5551st meeting, on 14 October 2006; http://daccessdds.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/N06/572/07/PDF/N0657207.pdf?OpenElement.
  3. 3. The Agreed Framework included a provision that two reactors with a capacity of 50 and 200 MW would not be completed. If they were to be completed they had a capacity to generate a total of 275 kg plutonium per year, enough for 35 to 50 nuclear warheads. See the report of the CIA to the US Congress, 19 November 2002, published on the Website of the Federation of American Scientists; www.fas.org/nuke/guide/dprk/nuke/cia111902.html.
  4. 4. Interview of the author with experts in the Foreign Ministry in Pyongyang in 2006.
  5. 5. According to the US head of the delegation James Kelly, the North Korean Deputy Foreign Minister Kim “angrily denied that the DPRK had a highly enriched uranium (HEU) program. He dismissed my statement, claiming it was a fabrication.” In the final meeting, the First Deputy Foreign Minister Kank Sok Ju reacted, according to Kelly in the following way: “Kang… surprised me by making it quite clear, even before I was able to make my presentation, that North Korea was proceeding with an HEU program and that it considered the Agreed Framework to be ‘nullified.’” Quoted in Jonathan D. Pollack, The United States, North Korea, and the End of the Agreed Framework, in Naval War College Review, 3/2003 (Summer), p. 16; www.nwc.navy.mil/press/Review/2003/Summer/art1-su3.htm.
  6. 6. See Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), 18 October 2006; www.kcna.co.jp/index-e.htm.
  7. 7. This has literally been mentioned so by DPRK officials from the Foreign Ministry to the author during several of his visits to Pyongyang. The invasion of Iraq is repeatedly quoted as proof for US aggressiveness.
  8. 8. These scenarios and their repercussions have been detailed by the author: Herbert Wulf, Nordkoreas Griff zur Bombe, Studien der Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik, Berlin, Studie Nr. 14, June 2006; www.swp-berlin.org/de/common/get_document.
  9. 9. International Institute for Strategic Studies, North Korea’s Weapons Programmes, London 2004, p. 16.
  10. 10. William J. Perry, Review of United States Policy Toward North Korea. Findings and Recommendations, October 12, 1999; www.armscontrol.org/Events/perryreport.asp.
  11. 11. Donald G. Gross, Weapons of Mass Destruction and North Korea, in: Pughwash Newsletter, Vol. 39, 1/2002, p. 67-73.
  12. 12. Donald G. Gross, Weapons of Mass Destruction and North Korea, in: Pughwash Newsletter, Vol. 39, 1/2002, p. 67-73.
  13. 13. He is quoted by Nicholas D. Kristof in the New York Times of 27 April 2005 with the words: “They blew it.”
  14. 14. Korean Central News Agency, 25 October 2002; www.kcna.co.jp/index-e.htm.
  15. 15. A 19 November 2002 CIA Report said: “The United States has been suspicious that North Korea has been working on uranium enrichment for several years. However, we did not obtain clear evidence indicating the North had begun constructing a centrifuge facility until recently. We assess that North Korea embarked on the effort to develop a centrifuge-based uranium enrichment program about two years ago.” www.fas.org/nuke/guide/dprk/nuke/cia111902.html.
  16. 16. It is speculated in press reports that there are “gaps” in the US knowledge of the uranium enrichment program. See Reuters, 22 February 2007, and New York Times, 1 March 2007.
  17. 17. Wade L. Huntley, Ostrich Engagement. The Bush Administration and the North Korea Nuclear Crisis, The Nonproliferation Review, Vol. 11, 2/2004 pp. 81-115.
  18. 18. Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, Initial Actions for the Implementation of the Joint Statement, February 13, 1007; www.fmprc.gov.cn/eng/zxxx/t297463.htm.