Written by Collin Fifer
History has a funny way of finding beginnings in endings. Empires’ falls leave power vacuums for future dynasties to fill. World War I, the War to End All Wars, spurred the start of World War II. And the end of World War II gave birth to the nuclear age.
This part of modern history brings to mind images of mushroom clouds and nuclear drills in schools. It stirs up memories of events like the Cuban Missile Crisis and Chernobyl. It tells like a drama, a tragedy, and, at times, a downright parody.
One of the most notable entries in the story of the Nuclear Age is that of North Korea.
Their efforts to obtain nuclear capabilities have clogged western airways, brought countless diplomats to the negotiating table, and been the bane of many politicians’ administrations.
But there is much more to the story of North Korea’s nuclear program than just the red, white, and blue versions. There are decades of story that happened before North Korea’s nukes were ever a blip on the U.S. radar.
So, throw on some “Little Rocket Man” and be sure not to push that button—the pause button, that is—because today we are talking about North Korea’s nuclear program.
World War II (1948-45)
After Hitler’s hopes for a Third Reich shriveled and died with the meeting of Soviet and Allied troops in Berlin, Japan still waged unforgiving war in the Pacific.
Even with the U.S. and Soviet Union’s undivided attention on them, they fought tooth and nail to keep every island in their empire, no matter how small of a dot in the Pacific it was.
Battles like those at Midway and Okinawa proved Japan would not give up a single pile of sand without first drawing its blood’s worth from their opponents. As the U.S. and Soviet pincer was closing on Japan and the two countries were drawing up invasion plans for the mainland, the Japanese fighting spirit did not seem to waver.
However, one thing seemed to change their mind really quick: nuclear attack. The bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki brought the Japanese Empire to its knees. The formerly feared imperial power of East Asia soon found itself the subject of occupation by Allied Forces.
After the war ended, Japan surrendered her territories to the invading forces of the Soviet Union and the United States. One of these territories was Korea. The two allied powers agreed to divide the peninsula along the 38th parallel. The U.S. backed a military government in the south while the Soviet Union built up a communist regime in the north.
This turn of events taught a budding ruler a valuable lesson.
The future head of the North Korean regime, Kim Il-sung, took the example of Japan to heart: two simple nukes could topple even the fiercest of empires.
The Birth of a Divided Korea (1948-74)
Though the original plan for Korea was for the U.S. and the Soviets to withdraw and allow the Korean Peninsula her self-determination, the Cold War iced over any deals previously made in friendship.
In 1948, the U.S. called for a general election in which the Korean people could determine as one the future of their country. However, those assuming power in the north refused to partake in the vote.
So, the south formed its own government under the leadership of a staunch anti-communist. The north reciprocated by officially naming the former guerilla leader Kim Il-sung the first premier of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.
The sides were set; the die was cast. In 1950, war broke out between the two sides. Backed by Soviet supplies and advisors, the north invaded the south in an attempt to unify the peninsula. The U.N., mainly bolstered by U.S. troops and supplies, came to the south’s aid. In return, China sent troops across the border to support the north.
The Pacific Theater was threatening to bubble over into global war again.
After three years of bloodshed, stalemate, and negotiations, the north and south and their respective geopolitical backers eventually signed an armistice. Now the peninsula was divided by a 2.5 mile (4 km) wide de-militarized zone. And though the stalemate had ended the shooting, the two sides continued to wage war with words, economics, and nuclear development.
The remaining years of the ‘50s saw the north actively engage in nuclear research programs. Fear of falling behind its southern neighbor gave North Korea the impetus to dedicate more Soviet-funded resources to nuclear weapons research.
However, in the early ‘60s, North Korea began to worry about the reliability of their Soviet support. After the Soviet Union withdrew their nuclear missiles from Cuba following the Cuban Missile Crisis, Kim Il-sung feared they might take similar actions with their nuclear support in his country, too.
Faced with the prospect of the cold, harsh world of geopolitics without superpower backing, and with the Japanese lesson in mind, Kim Il-sung increasingly regarded nuclear weapons as the last effective safeguard for North Korean security.
It wasn’t until the following decade and, ironically, the non-proliferation movement the ‘70s brought with it that North Korea saw its chance to launch its nuclear program.
Non-Proliferation Spurs Nuclearization (1974-85)
As the decades after the Korean War stretched on, Kim Il-sung grew increasingly aware of the difference in development between his country and its southern neighbor. With U.S. aid, South Korea had fostered a robust capitalist economy, allowing citizens luxuries that their comrades north of the border did not enjoy.
Kim was also looking for a way to leave a legacy for his son: an autonomous country free from dependence on superpower aid. He still saw nuclear capabilities as the best way to ensure this dream.
It was against this backdrop that the world entered the era of Nuclear Non-Proliferation. In 1968, the United States, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom and 59 other states signed the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, or NPT.
This treaty was an international promise not to aid other states in developing or obtaining nuclear weapons, with the end goal of complete disarmament. The treaty assigned the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) the responsibility of inspecting signatories and ensuring adherence to the NPT.
This is where Kim Il-sung saw his opening.
In 1974, North Korea joined the IAEA, and from ’75 to ’79, sent a nuclear scientist to work at the IAEA’s headquarters in Geneva. Under the auspices of aiding the organization’s non-proliferation work, the North Korean scientist fulfilled a more covert role.
They observed how to design a nuclear reactor and siphoned said information back to their government. In 1980, the intelligence operation paid off and North Korea built a nuclear reactor capable of producing weapons-grade plutonium.
As the Kim regime further developed their budding nuclear capabilities, the international non-proliferation community took notice. Under building pressure and international sanctions, North Korea signed onto the Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1985.
Non-Proliferation Treaty Waffling (1985-2003)
For nearly two decades, North Korea played at toeing the nuclear line. After signing on to the NPT, they conveniently failed to complete a safeguards agreement with the IAEA. Under the treaty they just signed, they had 18 months to complete said agreement.
However, it would be over six years before they would do so. How did they get away with it? The Korean regime tied their adherence to this part of the treaty with the U.S. withdrawal of nuclear weapons from South Korea.
The U.S. had about one hundred nuclear weapons stationed in the south of the Korean peninsula. That’s more than double the amount experts estimate North Korea to have today.
Not back then. Currently. After decades of development.
Fair point, I guess. If North Korea has to commit to not even entertaining the idea of making nukes, why should they put up with hundreds of U.S. bombs right next door?
Perhaps Kim Il-sung was counting on the U.S. not wanting to give up their geopolitical trump card, allowing him the continued excuse he needed to avoid IAEA inspection and continue nuclearization. But the early ‘90s brought with it some welcome developments for pacifists everywhere.
In 1991, President Bush (the father, though his son would have his own role to play in this nuclear drama) committed to recalling all nuclear bombs deployed abroad. Just a week later, Mikhail Gorbachev would reciprocate the move.
The Cold War was thawing.
Following the international trend, South Korea committed to maintaining its nuclear abstinence. Their commitment held them to not possessing, manufacturing, using, or hosting nukes of any type, no matter who they belong to. It also bound them to not building uranium processing or enrichment facilities.
In early 1992, the two Koreas signed the South-North Joint Declaration on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. This accord had both sides agree to not “test, manufacture, produce, receive, possess, store, deploy or use nuclear weapons” or to not “possess nuclear reprocessing and uranium enrichment facilities.”
Finally, North Korea, alongside South Korea, agreed to undergo IAEA inspections.
However, things didn’t go as planned. Before any IAEA inspector had the chance to crack open the North Korean file, the U.S. sanctioned two North Korean companies for “missile proliferation activities.”
When the IAEA received the requested materials from the Kim regime, they soon found discrepancies between the regime’s initial report and the analyzed materials. They discovered further evidence that North Korea might be cheating on its NPT agreement. To uncover the truth, the IAEA requested access to more sites they believed to hold nuclear waste.
All this scrutiny proved too much for Kim Il-sung.
In 1993, the Vice Foreign Minister announced North Korea’s decision to withdraw from the Non-Proliferation Treaty.
Before the situation fell apart completely, however, diplomats from North Korea and the U.S. met in New York. They reached a deal and North Korea agreed to halt its withdrawal from the treaty. However, North Korea and the IAEA were still at odds over access to nuclear sites.
All sides continued to butt heads and the situation looked dire. That is, until former-president Jimmy Carter traveled to the hermit kingdom. His visit broke the ice and made way for negotiations that led to the next chapter of this nuclear drama: the Agreed Framework.
The Agreed Framework
In 1994, the U.S., North Korea, Japan, and South Korea agreed on a deal that would freeze North Korea’s nuclear activity and allow the IAEA to verify the country’s initial declaration made when joining the NPT.
In exchange, the other three countries would aid North Korea in building light water reactors. These reactors, used mainly for nuclear energy, would make it harder for North Korea to produce weapons grade plutonium.
For the better part of the next decade, the deal seemed to pay off. The IAEA confirmed North Korea had halted its plutonium production and the U.S., Japan, and South Korea shipped fuel to and developed infrastructure for the Kim regime.
As the 20th century drew to a close, however, the diplomatic landscape became rocky. A combination of the IAEA’s failure to verify North Korea’s initial NPT declaration and a change in administrations in the U.S. cast the Agreed Framework in a less favorable light.
Perhaps “less favorable” is putting it nicely.
After all, this is when President Bush (the son, now adding his own flair to the nuclear play) grouped North Korea together with Iraq and Iran in his State of the Union Address, and dubbed them the “Axis of Evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world.”
And, thus, the real-life rendition of Team America: World Police began.
In 2002, the Bush administration confronted the Kim regime—now under the leadership of Kim Il-sung’s son, Kim Jong-il. The U.S. diplomats said they had evidence of North Korea’s new uranium enrichment capabilities.
North Korea seemed to confirm it, then denied confirming it, and declared that no such enrichment was happening. When asked to cooperate with the IAEA to confirm this enrichment was indeed not happening, no cooperation was forthcoming.
The Agreed Framework ground to a halt.
In 2003, North Korea did away with all pretense and publicly restarted their uranium enrichment plants. They disrupted monitoring equipment and told IAEA inspectors to leave. They dealt a final blow to the Non-Proliferation hopes of the 20th century and withdrew from the NPT.
Six-Party Talks (2003–present)
Though the efforts of the IAEA and the Agreed Framework bore no fruit, the U.S. and North Korea still engaged in talks. But this time, China, Russia, South Korea, and Japan joined in the fun.
The “Six-Party Talks” chapter of the nuclear drama was underway, with initial meetings taking place in Beijing.
These negotiations started off about as well as you’d expect.
By 2004, North Korea announced it possessed nuclear weapons and would withdraw from the Six-Party Talks. There was a pause in talks for nearly a year, during which North Korea continued enriching uranium.
But every story needs twists and turns to keep the audience hooked, and this nuclear saga is no different.
In 2005, a breakthrough of sorts happened. The U.S. promised that it had no nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula and had no plans to attack North Korea. All the parties involved in the talks expressed their respect for North Korea’s right to “peaceful uses of nuclear energy” and “agreed to discuss, at an appropriate time, the subject of the provision of light water reactors to the DPRK.” In return, North Korea agreed to abandon its nuclear programs and return to the NPT.
Ready for another plot twist?
Before any action could be taken, the accords fell apart. There was disagreement on what “provision of light water reactors” meant.
The U.S. also froze roughly $25 million in North Korean assets held in Banco Delta Asia as part of a money laundering investigation. The North Koreans stated they would never abandon their nuclear weapons and programs as long as these funds remained frozen.
Talks continued off and on for the next couple of years until, in 2007, another chance for redemption arose. North Korea, with verification from the IAEA, closed and dismantled its nuclear facilities in return for the freeing of their Banco Delta Asia assets.
The next year, the U.S. removed North Korea from their list of “State Sponsors of Terrorism.” What a happy ending for the Bush chapter.
Another downturn marked the beginning of the Obama chapter.
Questions arose over how complete North Korea’s declaration of nuclear materials was. Further concerns stemmed from their launch of a communications satellite thought to be a cover for missile testing and suspicions of assistance to a Syrian nuclear program.
And just like that, North Korea re-opened its nuclear facilities. In 2009, they completed a weapons test that drew retaliatory sanctions from the U.N.
This back and forth, up and down plotline that had established itself over the years continued for the next several.
Talks would produce a breakthrough, parties would announce promises, plants would be shut down, sanctions would be lifted. Then a problem would come out of left field. Plants would resume operation, sanctions would be reinstalled, and parties would meet again for talks.
The only novel, noteworthy event that happened as the 21st century matured to its teen years was the death of Kim Jong-il. His son, Kim Jong-un, assumed power and experts had a heyday proposing theories on what this might mean.
The third Kim, grandson of the regime’s founding leader, was an unknown on the world stage. Many experts predicted that control of the regime would be uneasy until Kim Jong-un asserted his power more.
The Obama administration recognized the historical repetitiveness of this nuclear saga and, perhaps hoping for a slip up from the new ruler, opted for a plan of “strategic patience.” In effect, this meant that they increased sanctions and waited it out. They hoped the economic hardships would smoke out the North Koreans, bring them back to the negotiating table in a weaker position, and produce actual breakthroughs.
But the only smoke to be seen was from North Korean rockets.
During the years of “strategic patience,” North Korea carried out two major nuclear tests, in 2013 and 2016, and ramped up their ballistic missile development and testing. During the beginning of Kim Jong-un’s reign, North Korea carried out more ballistic missile tests than under his father and grandfather combined.
It seems the only problem with President Obama’s “strategic patience” was that Kim Jong-un had all the time in the world to be patient. Obama only had until the next election.
The nuclear play was about to enter its most entertaining and volatile chapter. How could it not be with a reality TV star and “Little Rocket Man” in the leading roles?
When President Trump took office, his rhetoric showed an immediate U-turn in U.S. policy. However, shortly after his inauguration, Trump was faced with explosive news from North Korea.
Only this wasn’t just words.
In 2017, North Korea performed another nuclear test. What set this test apart, though, was that the Kim regime claimed it was a hydrogen bomb. The explosive yield it produced shocked observers.
Trump responded by placing North Korea back on the U.S. list of State Sponsors of Terrorism. Not to leave the airwaves empty—after all, audiences love a good quarrel—North Korea claimed it could reach U.S. soil with nuclear intercontinental ballistic missiles.
Always in search of the last word, Trump threatened a military strike, but not before making a statement in his preferred presidential method: Twitter.
“North Korean leader Kim Jong Un just stated that the ‘Nuclear Button is on his desk at all times.’ Will someone from his depleted and food starved regime please inform him that I too have a Nuclear Button, but it is a much bigger & more powerful one than his, and mine works!”
Observers were not quite as shocked at the explosive yield of this bomb.
Because of the Winter Olympics set to take place in Pyeongchang, South Korea, diplomacy between the Olympic hosts and their northern neighbors was taking a warmer turn. Kim and Trump took advantage of this Winter thaw, put aside their dispute over button size, and agreed to the first U.S.-North Korean Summit.
Before meeting with Trump, Kim Jong-un rode the wave of friendship sweeping the Korean Peninsula and became the first North Korean leader to cross into the South when he met with South Korean President Moon Jae-in.
The summit produced platitudes that followers of this story were, by then, well used to hearing: “nuclear-free peninsula,” “abandonment of nuclear facilities…” You get the gist.
Though, it was noteworthy to witness the two heads of state of the divided peninsula agree to turn the decades-old armistice that ended the fighting in Korean War into an actual peace treaty. But, like many of the talks in this story, nothing has come of these promises, yet.
After an initial cancellation of their summit (apparently North Korea’s rhetoric had been too mean), Trump and Kim finally held their meeting in Singapore.
Besides the usual catchphrases—“lasting peace,” “denuclearization,” you know by now—the two leaders discussed stopping joint U.S. and South Korean military exercises and the return of remains of soldiers who had fought in the Korean War.
The era of diplomatic talks had morphed into the far more headline-worthy period of presidential summits. South Korean President Moon met with Kim one more time and President Trump met with Kim again in Vietnam.
However, the Vietnam summit produced no deal because of the typical reasons: sanctions relief and denuclearization. Apparently, there wasn’t enough of either for both sides’ liking.
Not wanting to lose the chance of Peace in Korea (not as catchy as “Peace in the Middle East,” but Jared Kushner was making no headway in his father-in-law, I mean, presidentially appointed role), Trump met with Kim in the DMZ, becoming the first sitting U.S. president to step into North Korea.
Despite both leader’s mutual assurances of their great relationship (the best, I hear, everyone’s saying it), the U.S. kept sanctions in place and North Korea continued to conduct nuclear tests. Before long, North Korea refused to continue negotiations with the U.S., simultaneously shutting down all contact with the south.
The whirlwind of the Trump chapter petered out to the typical ending: the Kim regime hunkering down in their hermit kingdom with their hard-earned nukes.
The current entry in this saga—the Biden years—are still underway. It remains to be seen if there will be any unexpected plot twist or refreshing character development. But it’s safe to say that the current trajectory shows no such change.
When Biden took office, his administration took the middle road between Obama’s “strategic patience” and Trump’s, well, whatever you want to call that bombastic, tweet-filled strategy. They offered complete sanction relief for total denuclearization.
In return, North Korea expressed disinterest in returning to negotiations. Maybe they miss the entertainment Trump’s “art of the deal” bargaining gave them. Or maybe they caught the nuclear bug and didn’t want the cure.
After all, North Korea’s nuclear capabilities, as they stand now, would make Kim Il-sung proud.
In January 2022, they carried out more missile tests than in all of 2021 combined. Experts estimate that the Kim regime has between 25 and 50 nuclear warheads in storage for a rainy day. The maximum range of their most powerful rocket is 8,000 miles (13,000 km), or long enough to reach anywhere on the U.S. mainland.
From World War II lessons of nukes ending empires to present day nuclear capabilities holding the U.S. in their reach, North Korea has played the long game.
They knew when to be patient and allow inspections and when to rebuff negotiations and advance their nuclear program. They always kept their end goal in mind: their dream of joining the geopolitical nuclear family.
How will this story end? Now that one of the world’s most secretive countries possesses nuclear capabilities, no one really knows. But for how many lines were crossed in this nuclear play, the heavily militarized one dividing the Korean peninsula is the only one that has held fast… for now.