No Light at the End of the Tunnel

9 october 2017

North Korean Nuclear Program and Ways to Deal with It

Andrei Lankov is a historian, Korean studies expert, and a lecturer at Kookmin University, Seoul.

Resume: None of the possible scenarios for solving the North Korean problem—negotiations, sanctions, and a military solution—can be considered acceptable and satisfactory. This means that the United States and the whole world will likely have to coexist with a nuclear North Korea.

On October 9, 2006, seismic stations around the world registered a seismic event centered near the village of Punggye-ri in the North Hamgyong province of North Korea. That was the first North Korean nuclear test. Since then, the issue of the North Korean nuclear program has entered a markedly different phase.


The test was not a total surprise to anyone. North Korea had shown interest in developing its own nuclear weapons at least since the 1960s. In 1956, it signed an agreement with the Soviet Union for scientific and technical cooperation in nuclear research, and shortly thereafter North Korean students, trainees and scientists began to frequent the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research at Dubna, near Moscow.

North Korea’s nuclear attempts, which had become obvious by the beginning of the 1960s, worried Moscow and it began to use cooperation programs with Pyongyang to have at least some control over North Korean nuclear research and reduce the likelihood of using its results for military purposes. In the 1960s, North Korea was ready to make such a compromise. Pyongyang, which never had any sympathy for the Soviet Union, wanted to use cooperation with Moscow to speed up the development of its own nuclear research, and to this end it was ready to make temporary concessions. The Soviet Union agreed to provide technical assistance to North Korea in building a nuclear research center and an experimental reactor at Yongbyon (operational since 1965).

The North Korean nuclear program began to gain momentum in the 1970s. It is quite probable that Kim Il-sung and his retinue thus reacted to South Korea’s attempt to create its own nuclear weapons. The South Korean nuclear project was stopped in the late 1970s after U.S. interference, but Pyongyang knew about the project.

In the early 1980s, Pyongyang and Moscow signed an agreement for the construction of a nuclear power plant in North Korea (this project was never implemented). The Soviet Union, still concerned about the potential threat posed by Pyongyang’s nuclear program, insisted that the construction would begin only if North Korea signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Pyongyang had no choice and in 1985 it joined the NPT.

This happened at a time when there appeared the first signs of internal political instability in the Soviet Union and when the world around North Korea began to change rapidly (not for the better for the North Korean elite). These developments caused Pyongyang to accelerate its nuclear program. By the early 1990s, there was no doubt that North Korean scientists and engineers were actively working to create plutonium-based nuclear weapons, extracting plutonium from fuel rods from North Korean reactors. This news aroused little enthusiasm in the world, above all the United States. The result was the crisis of 1993-1994, sometimes called “the first North Korean nuclear crisis.” According to information leaked later, the U.S. military-political leadership seriously contemplated delivering a preemptive strike against North Korean nuclear facilities. On the other hand, it was during this crisis that North Korea threatened to turn Seoul into “a sea of ??fire.” Later, this threat became a routine part of Pyongyang’s rhetoric.


The first North Korean nuclear crisis ended in 1994 when the Agreed Framework was signed by Pyongyang and Washington. The agreement provided for the construction of two light water nuclear reactors in North Korea. These reactors are less suitable for producing weapons grade plutonium, but they can be used for generating electricity. The reactors were to be built by the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization (KEDO), a consortium of various countries led by the United States, South Korea, and Japan. These three countries accounted for 57.9, 19.8, and 16.1 percent of KEDO’s budget, respectively. The other members of the consortium accounted for a total of 6.2 percent. Under the Agreed Framework, North Korea was to regularly receive free supplies of 500,000 tons of crude oil from KEDO per year until the reactors were completed.

The main reason why the U.S. and its allies signed the Agreed Framework was the widespread belief at the time that the project would not have to be completed. The world socialist system had recently collapsed, and many analysts, not only in Washington but also in other capitals (including Moscow), believed that the North Korean regime had no future and that Kim Il-sung would repeat the fate of Nicolae Ceausescu.

However, despite the famine of 1996-1999, which claimed 600,000 to 900,000 lives, and despite international isolation, the North Korean regime survived. Moreover, North Korean scientists, who had had to freeze the plutonium program under the Agreed Framework, began to develop nuclear weapons using enriched uranium. Of course, the uranium program was a violation of the Agreed Framework, and when the U.S. learned about it in 2002, it demanded an explanation. Thus began the “second nuclear crisis.”

Most likely, Pyongyang had hoped for a compromise on the uranium program, similar to the 1994 Agreed Framework: a reversible freezing of the program in exchange for economic assistance and political concessions from the U.S. However, the administration of George W. Bush declined to participate in the negotiations and unilaterally withdrew from KEDO. The Agreed Framework ceased to exist.

For several years, North Korea denied it had a uranium program, but in 2010 Pyongyang invited an American delegation, led by former director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory Siegfried Hecker, to a uranium enrichment center that had apparently for long been working at full capacity.

After the collapse of the Agreed Framework, North Korea began intensive preparations for nuclear tests, the first of which took place in October 2006. It was followed by four more underground explosions in 2009, 2013 and twice in 2016.

The exact size of the North Korean nuclear arsenal is unknown. According to estimates by leading U.S. experts, as of early 2016, North Korea presumably had 20 to 40 kilograms of weapons grade plutonium (enough to produce four to eight nuclear bombs) and 200 to 450 kilograms of enriched uranium (enough to produce 10 to 25 bombs). The annual output was estimated at six kilograms of plutonium and 150 kilograms of uranium, that is, each year the number of potential bombs increased by eight to ten.

Simultaneously, North Korea began to work actively on the development of nuclear-capable missiles. Its intelligence for long sought access to Soviet missile technologies denied by Moscow. However, at least two attempts were successful. In about 1980, Pyongyang received several Soviet-made R-17 (Scud) missiles, presumably from Egypt. Shortly after that, North Korea launched the production of copies of the R-17, which were not only supplied to the army but also exported—in particular, Iran actively used these missiles during the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-1988 (this fact has been officially admitted by Tehran).

The second success of the North Korean intelligence efforts took place, most likely, in the early 1990s, when Pyongyang got drawings and some technological information related to the R-27 missile. This solid-fuel submarine-launched missile, developed in the Soviet Union in the mid-1960s, served as the basis for North Korean missiles created in the 2000s. In 1998, North Korea made its first attempt to launch a satellite, with the rocket being a test-bed for long-range missile technologies. The North Korean media stated that the launch was a success; in fact, this and several other attempts failed.

North Korea achieved its first real success in missile development under Kim Jong-un, the third ruler from the Kim family, who came to power in December 2011. In December 2012, North Korea successfully put into orbit a satellite and conducted several missile tests. Now, North Korean missiles are capable of reaching targets throughout the Korean Peninsula and in a large part of Japan. In February 2017, North Korea conducted a successful test of a solid-fuel missile with a range of about 1,200 kilometers. The missile is easily disguised, can be fired from mobile launchers which are harder to detect by reconnaissance equipment, and can be launched in minutes (given the high pace of development of North Korean missile systems, it is not surprising that information about them quickly becomes obsolete; regular reviews of the current state of affairs are published by Vladimir Khrustalyov). Shortly thereafter, in May 2017, North Korea successfully fired a new ballistic missile with a maximum range of about 3,000 kilometers, capable of delivering nuclear strikes against Alaska and Guam, as well as American bases in the Asia-Pacific region.

Simultaneously, Pyongyang developed ballistic missiles for submarines. This technically difficult task was accomplished very quickly, much earlier than was expected by foreign experts. In August 2016, North Korea successfully launched a ballistic missile from a submerged submarine, and, judging by satellite images, the work on submarine-launched ballistic missiles will accelerate in the near future.

In early 2017, North Korea unequivocally stated that it was in the final stage of developing an intercontinental ballistic missile capable of reaching the continental United States. This statement reflects a new policy of Kim Jong-un and his inner circle. Whereas the late Kim Jong-il’s ambitions did not go further than having a small nuclear arsenal, his son wants to have a full-fledged nuclear force with a second-strike capability. In other words, he intends to create a nuclear force that would be capable of surviving a sudden conventional attack and preserving a sufficient number of warheads and delivery vehicles for a retaliatory strike. At present, the main elements of such a nuclear force could be ICBMs deployed on mobile launchers and nuclear-armed submarines patrolling off the U.S. Coast.


The North Korean nuclear project from the very beginning had three strategic goals. Over time, their priority status and relative importance changed, but the goals themselves have most likely remained unchanged for almost half a century.

The first (and currently main) goal of the nuclear project is deterrence. Kim Jong-un and his retinue remember well that George W. Bush once described North Korea as an “axis of evil,” together with Iraq and Afghanistan which were later attacked and occupied by the United States. The sad fate of Muammar Gaddafi, the only ruler in history who agreed to exchange a nuclear program for economic benefits from the West, served as an important signal to the North Korean leadership. There is no doubt that Pyongyang has learned a good lesson from the Libyan events. Gaddafi’s death at the hands of rebels clearly demonstrated to the North Korean elite that it was right: the possession of nuclear weapons is an essential condition for preserving the current regime (or statehood, for that matter). Pyongyang believes (and possibly with good reason) that the presence of nuclear weapons will sharply reduce the likelihood of foreign interference in the event of internal conflict.

During the Libyan revolution, in March 2011, a North Korean Foreign Ministry official said: “The Libyan crisis (...) has clearly demonstrated how the nuclear disarmament of Libya, much touted by the U.S., ended in aggression. The treacherous attack took place after the aggressor used sweet promises of security guarantees and improved relations to persuade its victim to disarm, and then swallowed it up using force. This has once again proved the simple truth that peace can be preserved only if the country has enough power to deter.”

The second strategic goal of the North Korean nuclear program is to strengthen the country’s “diplomatic potential.” North Korea is a small and poor country. Even according to optimistic estimates of the CIA World Factbook (North Korea has not published economic statistics whatsoever for more than half a century), its per capita GDP is only U.S. $1,800, which is about 20 times less than the figure for South Korea. Countries that are the closest to North Korea in terms of population and GDP are Madagascar and Mozambique. However, over the past 25 years, North Korea has invariably attracted the international community’s attention, primarily because of its nuclear program.

The nuclear program was a major factor behind foreign food and humanitarian supplies to North Korea in 1996-1999 when the country was hit by famine. The largest food supplies came from countries with which North Korea was in hostile relations and formally even in a state of war. According to the WFP, of the 11.8 million tons of free food supplies to the country in 1996-2011, formally “friendly” China supplied only a quarter—three million tons. The main suppliers of free food were “hostile” countries—the U.S. (2.4 million tons), Japan (0.9 million tons), and South Korea (3.1 million tons).

Formally, of course, the food aid from the United States or Japan was not linked to North Korea’s desire to comply with the 1994 Agreed Framework and temporarily freeze its nuclear program. In practice, the existence of an implied linkage between the nuclear project and the humanitarian aid cannot be doubted. The collapse of the Agreed Framework in 2002 led to an almost complete cessation of U.S. and Japanese supplies.

Now the North Korean economy is in a much better state than it was 15-20 years ago. The reforms initiated by Kim Jong-un and his attempt to create “market authoritarianism” have led to economic recovery and, most importantly, an improvement in the standard of living for the majority of the population. In these conditions, the need for nuclear weapons as a diplomatic lever for receiving food aid has objectively decreased. Yet they are still an important diplomatic tool and will most likely remain so in the foreseeable future.

The third strategic goal of the nuclear program is the further legitimization of the regime. In most countries, the population is positive about growth of the military power of their country, and North Korea is no exception.

In addition, the work on the nuclear program is widely used in national propaganda to explain the country’s economic difficulties and lower living standards than in neighboring countries. North Korean propagandists actively appeal to the nuclear program when they need to explain to the population the causes of the 1996-1999 famine (the famine itself is not hushed up, although no statistics on the number of deaths have been published in the official press). The famine is now explained by a combination of unprecedented floods, an “economic blockade” by imperialists, and, of course, a strategic necessity to create nuclear weapons for the sake of the country’s preservation and the physical survival of its population. This propaganda doctrine presents the victims of the famine as soldiers who gave their lives for the survival of the North Korean statehood and socio-political model. The population is told that the only force that prevents a devastating war on the Korean Peninsula is the nuclear deterrence capability which must be preserved and developed at any cost.


Most countries in the world are negative about the North Korean nuclear program. Especially negative are the leading nations, most of which are “officially recognized nuclear powers” and therefore are hostile to the possibility of nuclear proliferation. This is why each new nuclear test is followed by a UN Security Council resolution that not only denounces Pyongyang’s actions but introduces ever tougher sanctions against it. Yet, despite a partial coincidence of interests, the international community has failed to form a united front on this issue and will hardly do it in the future. An overwhelming majority of key players, despite their desire to prevent nuclear proliferation, have other interests, often more important to them, than nuclear disarmament of North Korea.

The United States is probably the most consistent advocate of North Korea’s denuclearization. The North Korean nuclear program has from the very beginning been directed primarily against the U.S.—a fact which Pyongyang keeps mentioning all the time. For example, during yet another crisis in late March 2013, the North Korean press published photos of Kim Jong-un together with North Korean generals standing in front of a map of the United States showing targets for nuclear strikes. At that time, North Korea did not have missiles capable of hitting those targets; so, the photos were partly a diplomatic demonstration, and partly a statement of intent.

In addition to viewing North Korea as a possible enemy, Washington is also concerned that Pyongyang’s actions may create a risky precedent for the non-proliferation policy. Unlike other “new nuclear powers” (Israel, India, and Pakistan), North Korea once signed the NPT and assumed the obligation to comply with restrictions imposed by the treaty. It used its short stay in the NPT’s frameworks to gain additional access to nuclear technologies and then announced its withdrawal from the non-proliferation regime. In these conditions, recognizing North Korea as a de facto nuclear power (like India or Pakistan), a development sought by Pyongyang, would inevitably become a dangerous precedent that would call into question the stability of the nuclear non-proliferation control system.

Other leading powers are more neutral towards the North Korean nuclear program. China, for example, is generally negative about it, because it is interested in retaining a privileged status. But in practice it is much more concerned about other issues, first of all, the maintenance of stability at its own borders and the preservation of the divided Korean Peninsula. It is not interested in either serious chaos in North Korea, or its absorption by the much more developed and richer South.

Seoul is also surprisingly calm about the North Korean nuclear program, although, of course, it by no means approves of it. Paradoxically, the appearance of nuclear weapons in North Korea has not drastically changed the balance of power on the peninsula. About half of the population of South Korea lives in Greater Seoul, the larger part of which has for almost half a century been within reach of North Korean heavy artillery located in close proximity to the city, on the opposite side of the so-called Demilitarized Zone. Of course, the appearance of several nuclear warheads in the North Korean army changes the situation to some extent, but South Koreans have long been accustomed to living in these conditions. Therefore, the main priorities for South Korea are maintaining stability and the status quo and reducing tensions in inter-Korean relations. Some part of society still is very serious about the reunification issue and believes that building better relations with North Korea will be the first step towards it. Yet, South Koreans, especially young people, are less and less enthusiastic about reunification.

Such disagreements mean that a united front of powers on the North Korean issue is impossible. The decisive role is played by China which, as mentioned above, seeks to preserve the status quo on the peninsula despite its negative attitude towards the North Korean nuclear project. China controls about 90 percent of North Korea’s foreign trade; therefore, international sanctions would not be effective if Beijing does not join in. China is not interested in very tough sanctions, because they may lead to a serious economic crisis and political destabilization in the neighboring country. An unstable North Korea—or a Korea reunified like Germany, that is, under Seoul’s control—would be highly undesirable to China, and it would like to avoid either of the two scenarios. Hence Beijing’s caution over international sanctions and its tendency to ignore or sometimes even sabotage them.


The United States’ official position has for years been a demand for complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization of North Korea. This formula is repeated with monotonous regularity, as often as Pyongyang speaks about the inadmissibility of its nuclear disarmament.

This approach is understandable but hardly realistic. As a matter of fact, American officials understand this and privately admit that the demand for denuclearization cannot be implemented in the foreseeable future. Former National Intelligence Director James Clapper’s words that attempts to denuclearize North Korea are a “lost cause” are a semi-official expression of this position, shared by very many U.S. experts.

There is good reason for this skepticism. From the U.S. point of view, in theory Pyongyang’s nuclear disarmament can be achieved in three ways, but in practice none of them is politically acceptable or feasible.

The first way is negotiations, that is, an attempt to repeat the Libyan scenario, which is now used, to some extent, in Iran (it should be borne in mind, of course, that neither Iran nor Libya had nuclear weapons and that these countries were urged to stop the development of nuclear weapons). This scenario provides that North Korea will renounce nuclear weapons in exchange for serious economic and political concessions by the United States. In practice, however, it is highly unlikely that Pyongyang will agree to the deal. The North Korean political elite, now sadder but wiser from the bitter international experience of the last 20 to 30 years, views renunciation of the nuclear arsenal as a collective political suicide and is not ready to accept this option under any circumstances.

In addition, the North Korean elite is not very interested in rewards of this kind. Foreign aid, if efficiently used, could significantly improve the life of the majority of the population, but it has no impact on political decision-making. Preserving the regime is a much more important goal for the country’s leaders than economic growth or improvement of living standards. This is why they will not put the security of their country and regime in jeopardy for the sake of economic improvement (as Gaddafi’s example vividly demonstrated, such chances may prove to be illusory).

The second theoretical way to solve the nuclear problem U.S. style (that is, through full denuclearization) is the policy of sanctions. Washington hopes that Pyongyang, faced with a severe economic crisis caused by sanctions and possible discontent among the masses (or the elite), will give up nuclear weapons. However, these expectations have little chance of being fulfilled.

The main problem for the United States is China, which seeks to maintain the status quo as a lesser evil and which does not want a crisis in North Korea. Therefore, it not only shows little enthusiasm about sanctions but also continues to provide tangible assistance to Pyongyang. This assistance largely includes subsidized supplies of liquid fuel at so-called “friendship prices.” However, China’s passivity, fully justified and understandable, is only one of the factors making sanctions futile. Even if China agrees to join in full-scale international sanctions, as proposed by the U.S., this will hardly have any impact on Pyongyang’s nuclear policy. Of course, a cessation of subsidized fuel supplies from China or, at worst, China’s partial embargo on trade with North Korea would be a major blow to the country. Yet, a sharp deterioration of the economic situation and even a new outbreak of famine would not make Pyongyang give in. If China, under U.S. pressure, imposes “effective” sanctions (that is, those that may lead to economic disintegration in North Korea), an economic catastrophe will hit the population, not the elite. And there is no reason to think that Pyongyang will give up its nuclear project because of economic hardships afflicting the population.

Recently, especially after Donald Trump came to power in the U.S., one more, third possible option has been considered—a military solution. It is argued that the Israeli Air Force attacks on nuclear facilities in Iraq (1981) and Syria (2007) may serve as precedents. Advocates of a military solution believe that U.S. high-precision strikes against nuclear facilities will paralyze the North Korean nuclear program.

This idea, which is very popular among American hawks, does not stand up to criticism. The main problem is that the North Korean armed forces are capable of responding to such attacks. It is not that they can prevent them (North Korea’s air defense forces are outdated), but in response Pyongyang will most likely strike at Seoul and other border areas of South Korea, especially those where U.S. military facilities are located. South Korea will respond with a counter counter-strike, thus provoking a Second Korean War. Prospects of a hard and bloody ground operation in Asia do not inspire enthusiasm in Washington, especially among U.S. military leaders.

There are also practical doubts that a series of pinpoint strikes will stop the nuclear program. Most of the facilities related to the missile and nuclear industries are reliably disguised and located in hardened, underground structures. North Korea has an unprecedentedly strict counterintelligence regime. There is little chance that U.S. secret services have reliable information about the location of nuclear facilities, and still less chance that these targets will be destroyed.

It is impossible to completely rule out the possibility of a conflict. As mentioned above, Kim Jong-un, unlike his father, is set to create a force with a second-strike capability, based on ICBMs capable of reaching the continental U.S. After Kim Jong-un in a New Year speech in January 2017 announced plans to develop such missiles, Trump reacted with a tweet, saying “It won’t happen!” However, North Korea is likely to complete the development of missiles during Trump’s presidency even though he is resolved to prevent the appearance of such weapons in North Korea. In addition, the mere fact of North Korea becoming a country capable of delivering a nuclear strike on the United States would be a serious challenge to any U.S. administration. Also, it cannot be ruled out completely that Trump and his team will ignore the risks of a big war and attack North Korean military facilities. However, this possibility is low: over the last two to three months, members of the Trump administration have become less eager to discuss the possibility of a military attack, trying instead to persuade China to put more pressure on Pyongyang (with little chance for success, though).

So, none of the possible scenarios for solving the North Korean problem—negotiations, sanctions, and a military solution—can be considered acceptable and satisfactory. This means that the United States and the whole world will likely have to coexist with a nuclear North Korea for a long time. The problem can only be solved with a regime change, but the likelihood of this is not very high.


There should be no gloating over Washington’s helplessness: no one is happy about the success of the North Korean nuclear program. The transformation of North Korea into a nuclear power really creates a dangerous precedent, and in the future it may undermine the nuclear non-proliferation regime. In the long term, the stability of the Kim family’s regime is questionable. It turns out that nuclear weapons have fallen into the hands of a country that can plunge into chaos, where control over nuclear weapons and their means of delivery will be lost. Finally, considering the low level of North Korean reconnaissance and communication facilities, and the (presumably) exceptional concentration of power in the hands of the top leader, we cannot rule out the possibility of using nuclear weapons as a result of a miscalculation of the situation, panic or a technical error.

In the long term, a partial solution may be a compromise, which can be described as “freezing the North Korean nuclear program.” The United States and other interested countries would make generous political and economic concessions to Pyongyang in exchange for a moratorium on the testing of nuclear weapons and delivery vehicles. Needless to say, considering the experience of the last decade, payments should be made not on a one-time basis but monthly, quarterly or annually, and they should be stopped if North Korea considers itself free from obligations resulting from such an agreement.

In fact, the 1994 Agreed Framework can be viewed as the first agreement of this kind, as it provided for suspending the North Korean nuclear program in exchange for economic assistance. The fact that it successfully worked for eight years and was broken by the United States proves that such a compromise is theoretically possible. Moreover, private conversations with American officials show that there is an understanding, at least among mid-level diplomats, that freezing is the most acceptable of all realistic options. However, the possibility of concluding such an agreement is not very high at the moment.

There are problems on both sides. The U.S. administration will find it hard, for domestic political reasons, to recognize North Korea as a de facto nuclear power—and the freeze would imply such recognition. In addition, the deal would imply that the United States will pay subsidies to North Korea, which will retain its nuclear status (without subsidies, North Korea will not make such an agreement). The opposition in the Congress and the media will likely present an accord with Pyongyang as surrender and concession to the international blackmailer. Understandably, the U.S. president will make such a deal only if he has serious and weighty grounds for that, especially if he is Donald Trump.

On the other hand, the North Korean leadership is not ready, either, to seriously discuss a freeze of its nuclear program. Its main task now is to create a second-strike capability, and there will be no compromise until Pyongyang develops and deploys ICBMs capable of hitting targets in the U.S. mainland. On the other hand, the deployment of ICBMs will make negotiations even more difficult for Americans, at least at the initial stage.

No other options, except for those described above, are visible at the moment. In the long term, it is a freeze agreement that will solve (for some time, not forever) the North Korean nuclear problem—or, rather, defuse it. But now, however, we are a very, very long way from such an agreement.

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