Country Profiles: North Korea

North KoreaNPT: 1985
CTBT: not signed
First Test: none
First Hydrogen Bomb: none

Current number of nuclear warheads: none confirmed, perhaps 2

Last Updated: 2/27/02

North Korea was long suspected of reprocessing plutonium fuel from reactors at Taechon and Yongbyon for possible use in nuclear weapons. In 1985, North Korea signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), but did not complete an agreement with the International Atomic Energy Association (IAEA) until 1992. After IAEA inspectors asked for access to two previously unreported nuclear sites thought to contain nuclear materials, North Korea announced its intention to withdraw from the NPT (in March of 1993). A series of talks involving the United States, South Korea, and North Korea began shortly thereafter, succeeding in stopping the withdrawal process and culminating in the October 21, 1994 signing of the Agreed Framework. Under this framework, North Korea agreed to halt its nuclear program and submit to IAEA inspections, and the United States and South Korea agreed to help build two Light Water Reactors (LWR) and to provide oil in the meantime to alleviate North Korea’s energy woes. The signatories also agreed to work together for full normalization of relations, security and peace on the Korean peninsula, and the strengthening of the nonproliferation regime.

The Agreed Framework was successful in putting a halt to reprocessing of plutonium and fissile material development, and the United States and North Korea continued to work on agreements to cement this framework and end North Korea’s proliferation of missiles. However, tensions did not disappear. Before production was halted, North Korea had removed several kilograms of plutonium; estimates range from 12 to 24 kg, enough to make one to two nuclear weapons. Some analysts, including the director of the CIA, estimated that North Korea had already constructed one or two bombs. Then, in August of 1998, North Korea launched a three stage Taepo-Dong I missile that traveled over Japan before landing in the Pacific Ocean. Despite the fact that the third stage of the missile failed, the event sent shockwaves through the United States intelligence community and fueled fears of ballistic missile attack. This launch has been a major component of the argument for a National Missile Defense system. In September of 1999, during talks in Berlin, North Korea agreed to place a moratorium on missile testing as long as talks with the United States continued. In exchange the United States partially lifted sanctions. Despite several rounds of talks, the United States and North Korea have failed to work out an agreement acceptable to both which would verifiably end North Korean nuclear weapons and missile development as well as missile proliferation.

North Korea is considered by many policymakers to represent the greatest immediate rogue state threat to the United States. The two most important issues for United States policymakers are nuclear and missile development and missile proliferation. In the past, North Korea has used the two to exact concessions from the United States, such as increased food aid and relaxed sanctions. North Korea has indicated it would abandon the sale of its No-Dong medium range missiles to countries like Iran and Pakistan in exchange for hard currency to replace lost sales – in this case $1 billion per year. Although the United States has been willing to provide benefits in the past, they have balked at this initiative.

Although North Korea has agreed to halt missile testing and fissile material production, development of both programs may still be continuing in secret, a process that could be rapidly expanded if the Agreed Framework is broken. The Taepo-Dong II missile, in development, could theoretically deliver a rudimentary nuclear payload to the continental United States. Estimates of when this capability would likely be operational range from 2005 to 2015. Of course, the timeframe for development is obviously impacted greatly by United States policy and North Korean cooperation.

A commission headed by ex-Secretary of Defense William Perry issued a 1999 report which asserted that although military deterrence against a North Korean invasion of South Korea is solid, the strategic balance could be disrupted by the introduction of nuclear equipped missiles, thus making this issue of paramount importance. The Perry report proposed a strategy that would link North Korea, the United States, South Korea, and Japan in continuing discussions. If North Korea stops its nuclear and missile program verifiably, then the United States and allies would work to end situations that North Korea views as threatening while attempting to bring about a full normalization of relations and increased aid. This strategy rests on the assumption that the proximate goals of North Korea are its own survival, rather than any kind of Communist expansion. The Clinton administration followed this strategy, offering concessions to achieve threat reductions.

This strategy was discarded by the Bush administration, which has been more wary of North Korea, and has halted talks while a thorough reexamination of the Clinton policy takes place. The Bush policy seeks to continue talks, but apparently views North Korean goals as more expansionist, and puts more focus on the “stick” rather than the “carrot.” In addition, the administration has tied a reduction in North Korea’s large (one million or more troops) conventional army to the talks.

Other policy proposals have been discussed as well, most fully in the Perry report, which discussed four additional options. The first, accepting the status quo, seemingly affording stability but was not regarded as not sustainable. Undermining or reforming the North Korean government and replacing it with a stable, democratic one was deemed highly unfeasible and also unlikely to occur in the immediate future. Likewise, inducing major government reforms was also perceived as unlikely. Finally, the option of “buying out” the North Koreans was rejected – the commission argued that this would encourage further “blackmail” by North Korea as well as other rogue states.

While North Korea may not represent the immediate threat that some analysts claim, its potential as a nuclear state and its proliferation activities represent a threat to world stability.


North Korea Advisory Group, Report to the Speaker, House of Representatives, November 1999

Congressional Research Service Report, “North Korea’s Nuclear Weapons Program: United States Policy Options.” June 1, 1994

Federation of American Scientists, North Korea Special Weapons Index

“Review of United States Policy Toward North Korea: Findings and Recommendations,” Unclassified report by Dr. William J. Perry

Arms Control Association Country Resources: North Korea (includes timeline)

The Heritage Foundation – Issues/Asia/the Koreas and Japan

Executive Summary of the Report of the Commission to Assess the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States (Rumsfeld Committee), July 15, 1998