"No one can solve this problem alone, but together we can change things for the better." 

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Hiroshima Survivor
June 6, 2016
North Korea

North Korea’s Nuclear ICBM?

With the 70 th anniversary of the founding of the Worker’s Party of Korea approaching on Oct. 10, the director of North Korea’s National Aerospace Development Administration (NADA) lauded his country’s “shining achievements” in space development in an interview with the state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on Sept. 14 and raised the possibility of another satellite launch in the near future. The unnamed director reported that North Korea is at a “final phase” in the development of a new earth observation satellite, a “peaceful project” pursuant to improving the people of North Korea’s...

China Urges New Talks With North Korea

October 2015

By Kelsey Davenport

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, shown in a September 22 photo, gave a September 19 speech in which he called for resumption of nuclear negotiations with North Korea by China and four other countries. (Photo credit: Matt Mills McKnight-Pool/Getty Images)On the 10th anniversary of North Korea’s commitment to give up its nuclear weapons, China last month called for the resumption of nuclear negotiations with Pyongyang based on a 2005 multilateral agreement.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said in a Sept. 19 speech that although much has changed since 2005, if the agreement’s “common understandings can be gradually implemented, not only can we achieve the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, but also open up new prospects for peace and development of Northeast Asia.” China chaired the talks that led to the 2005 agreement.

The talks, which also included Japan, Russia, South Korea, and the United States, led to a joint statement on Sept. 19, 2005, that included a commitment by North Korea to dismantle its nuclear weapons. In return, the five other countries were to work to strengthen economic ties with Pyongyang and explore security cooperation in Northeast Asia.

Wang’s speech in Beijing to a group of experts and officials from countries involved in the talks came about a week after North Korea’s announcement that a reactor it had used in the past to produce plutonium for nuclear weapons is fully operational again. North Korea is believed to have enough plutonium for six to eight nuclear weapons and may have produced highly enriched uranium for additional warheads.

In carrying out the 2005 agreement, North Korea disabled the reactor it used to produce plutonium for nuclear weapons in 2007 and destroyed the reactor’s cooling tower in 2008. But before the 2005 agreement was fully implemented, North Korea withdrew from the process.

Since the so-called six-party talks fell apart in 2009, North Korea has conducted two nuclear tests and restarted a heavy-water reactor that produces weapons-grade plutonium. (See ACT, October 2013.)

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said on Sept. 16, shortly after Pyongyang’s announcement about the reactor, that if North Korea does not refrain from “irresponsible provocations that aggravate regional concerns,” it will face “severe consequences.”

In his speech, Wang called on all the countries that were part of the six-party talks to “build up consensus” and create the necessary conditions for the resumption of the negotiations. Specifically, he said the parties should reaffirm the principles of the 2005 joint statement, jointly explore ways to “address security concerns of relevant parties” on the Korean peninsula, and refrain from attempts to disrupt the stability of Northeast Asia.

Meanwhile, North Korea announced in mid-September that it may launch a satellite into orbit on Oct. 10 to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the founding of the Workers’ Party of Korea. Pyongyang’s state-run Korean Central News Agency reported that the director of North Korea’s National Aerospace Development Administration said that it was pushing toward the “final phase” in the development of a “new earth observation satellite” in honor of the anniversary.

North Korea successfully launched a satellite on its Unha-3 launch vehicle for the first time in December 2012 after a failed attempt in April of that year. (See ACT, January/February 2013.) Most experts say if North Korea launched another satellite, it would likely use the Unha-3, as Pyongyang has not publicly displayed another model.

Because of their applicability to ballistic missile development, North Korean satellite launches are prohibited under UN Security Council resolutions.

The Sohae Satellite Launching Station, the site of the 2012 launches, received upgrades last year that would allow it to accommodate rockets even larger than the Unha-3. (See ACT, November 2014.) But satellite imagery from last month did not give any indication that the North Koreans were preparing for a launch, according to an imagery analysis by Jack Liu and Joseph Bermudez.

In a Sept. 15 article for 38 North, an online publication of the U.S.–Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University, Liu and Bermudez concluded that, in the five weeks between the time the images were taken and Oct. 10, there was “possibly sufficient time for the North to prepare for a launch if Pyongyang follows past practices and procedures.” The two analysts said this would be possible only if North Korea already had begun to prepare the satellite launch vehicle at the launch pad. Concealment measures make it difficult to observe if this process has begun, Liu and Bermudez said.

They wrote that if North Korea follows “past practice,” increased activity at the site, including filling up the buildings that hold propellant for the launch, would be expected. Satellites would likely be able to detect such activity.

China called for the resumption of nuclear negotiations with Pyongyang based on a 2005 agreement to denuclearize North Korea.

North Korea Tests Missile for Submarine

June 2015

By Kelsey Davenport

Secretary of State John Kerry (left) gestures during a joint press conference with South Korean Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se in Seoul on May 18. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images)North Korea claimed it launched a ballistic missile from a submarine last month, but some Western analysts contend that the missile was ejected from a submerged barge.

Pyongyang’s official Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) said that the May 9 test was a successful “underwater test fire” of a “strategic” ballistic missile from a submarine. The missile traveled about 150 meters before crashing into the sea, the KCNA said.

North Korea is prohibited from testing ballistic missiles by several UN Security Council resolutions. U.S. State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said on May 11 that the United States is calling on Pyongyang to “refrain from actions that further raise tensions in the region” and to take steps to fulfill its international obligations.

The KCNA did not say where the test took place, but analysts believe it was off the Sinpo South Naval Shipyard, on the eastern shore of North Korea.

Joseph Bermudez, chief analytics officer for AllSource Analysis, wrote in his May 13 analysis for 38 North, an online publication of the U.S. Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University, that the test was likely an ejection test of a ballistic missile from a submerged barge. Ejection tests are designed to evaluate stabilization systems and the process of underwater launch.

Bermudez said that testing a new submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) from a new, experimental ballistic missile submarine that North Korea had launched only eight months ago would “be at the uppermost limits of North Korean naval and ballistic missile design and development capabilities.”

A launch from a submerged barge is “more reasonable in line with assessed North Korean capabilities,” he said. Citing satellite imagery, Bermudez said such a vessel was present at the Sinpo shipyard.
Moving Forward

Michael Elleman, who served as a missile expert for the UN team that conducted weapons inspections in Iraq after the Persian Gulf War, said in a May 19 e-mail that the test is likely the “second step in the overall [North Korean] process of developing an SLBM capability.” The United States performed similar “pop-out” tests for the Polaris SLBM program, he said. The first step is ejecting a missile from a launch tube on the ground, Elleman said.

Elleman, who is now with the International Institute for Strategic Studies, said North Korea still must take a number of steps before it can reliably deploy an SLBM. A typical sequence would include additional ejection tests from a submerged barge, land-based tests of the missile, and then a full flight test of the SLBM from the barge and submarine, he said.

At a May 19 event at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), Adm. James Winnefeld, vice-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that North Korea is not as far along as its “spinmeisters would have us believe” and remains “many years away” from an SLBM capability.

Elleman said North Korea has “demonstrated a willingness to accept risks for weapons performance and reliability,” so the SLBM could be deployed sooner, but would likely have a reliability of less than 50 percent.

Elleman noted several operational obstacles to North Korean deployment of SLBMs, including developing secure communications with the submarine and establishing a command-and-control system. The latter could be difficult for the Kim Jong Un regime, Elleman said, as most dictators “do not enjoy delegating authorities,” especially with nuclear warheads involved.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said on May 18 during a visit to Seoul that China and the United States are discussing imposing additional sanctions on North Korea because of “recent provocations.” Kerry said the discussions would continue in June.

Kerry said Beijing has “extraordinary leverage” over North Korea. China is North Korea’s largest trading partner.

ICBM Dispute

A launcher carrying what analysts have said is a mock-up of the North Korean KN-08 intercontinental ballistic missile moves through Pyongyang on April 15, 2012, as part of a military parade marking the 100th anniversary of the birth of Kim Il Sung, the country’s founder. (Pedro Ugarte/AFP/Getty Images)North Korea’s capability to deploy an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) capable of delivering nuclear weapons also is in dispute.

North Korea claims its KN-08, or Hwasong-13, a road-mobile ballistic missile, is capable of reaching the United States with a nuclear warhead. That distance is more than 5,500 kilometers and therefore puts the KN-08 in the ICBM category.

North Korea is estimated to have six to eight plutonium-based warheads and may have additional warheads that use highly enriched uranium.

The KN-08 was first paraded in April 2012. At that time, many analysts said they believed the missile to be a mock-up. (See ACT, March 2013.) Subsequent displays of the missile have featured more-plausible design features, but there is still controversy about the extent of the missile’s development and how close the missile is to operational status. It is not known to have been flight-tested.

A May 20 story on Foreign Policy’s website quoted National Security Council spokesman Patrick Ventrell as saying that the United States does not think that North Korea can miniaturize a warhead to put on a ballistic missile.

But Adm. William Gortney, the head of U.S. Northern Command, told reporters at the Pentagon on April 7 that it is the U.S. assessment that the KN-08 is operational and North Korea could use the missile to shoot a nuclear warhead at the United States.

Elaine Bunn, deputy assistant secretary of defense of nuclear and missile defense policy, said at an April 7 event at CSIS that the “reliability of an untested KN-08 is likely to be very low.”

In the May 19 e-mail, Elleman said that if the KN-08 were deployed today, it would likely “fail more often than not” but that, for deterrence purposes, North Korea “gain[s] considerable dissuasive capacity” by deploying the missile.

North Korea claimed it launched a ballistic missile from a submarine, but some analysts contend it came from a submerged barge.

Understanding the North Korean Nuclear Threat


By Greg Thielmann
May 2015

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As the 2015 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference continues in New York, the international community's failure to halt the spread of nuclear weapons to North Korea looms large. Unlike the four of the world's nine nuclear-weapon states that have shown some progress in reducing their nuclear arsenals, North Korea is working hard to expand its arsenal and make it more credible. Unlike six of the nine, which have either ratified the 1996 Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty or maintained a testing moratorium since the treaty was concluded, North Korea has conducted three underground nuclear tests, the only state to do so during the last 17 years.

Unlike the three nuclear-weapon states that never became parties to the NPT, North Korea signed the treaty, declared it was withdrawing, later pledged to denuclearize, and then reneged on its commitment.

The North's nuclear program today is out of control and accelerating, damaging both the NPT and international stability. Addressing this grim reality begins with an objective assessment of North Korea's actual nuclear capabilities and an acknowledgment that the Obama administration's "strategic patience" approach is not working.

Washington and Beijing must step up their efforts to revive the six-party process with the near-term goal of freezing Pyongyang's nuclear and missile programs, taking care to manage potential spoilers, Russia and the U.S. Congress.


As the 2015 NPT Review Conference continues in New York, the international community’s failure to halt the spread of nuclear weapons to North Korea looms large.

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U.S. Rejects N. Korean Offer on Testing

March 2015

By Kelsey Davenport

Sung Kim, U.S. special representative for North Korea policy, testifies at a hearing of the House Foreign Affairs Committee on January 13. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)North Korea offered in January to halt nuclear testing if the United States would cancel an annual spring military exercise with South Korea, but Washington rejected the proposal.

The Jan. 9 offer was reported in Pyongyang’s state-run Korean Central News Agency (KCNA), which said that the joint military exercises are a “root cause of escalating tension” on the Korean peninsula. According to the KCNA article, Pyongyang called on the United States to contribute to easing tensions by suspending the exercise. The article said that North Korea would “take a responsive step” in exchange and suspend nuclear testing.

North Korea communicated the offer to the United States using a “relevant channel,” according to the news agency.

State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said at a Jan. 12 press briefing that the joint exercises will continue and that North Korea’s offer is an “implicit threat” that “inappropriately links” the exercises to the possibility of a nuclear test.

A nuclear test is a “clear violation” of North Korea’s obligations under multiple UN Security Council resolutions, while the joint military exercises are “transparent, defense oriented, and have been carried out regularly and openly for roughly 40 years,” Harf said.

Washington is open to dialogue with North Korea, but Pyongyang must take “steps toward denuclearization” before credible negotiations resume, Harf said.

As part of the so-called six-party talks, which began in 2003 and include China, Japan, Russia, South Korea, and the United States, North Korea pledged in 2005 to dismantle its nuclear weapons program and facilities. In 2009, however, the talks broke down when North Korea said it would no longer participate.

A Chinese analyst said in a Feb. 20 interview that Beijing is “critical of the U.S. decision to reject outright” North Korea’s proposal. The analyst said Washington’s “blindness and arrogance” will not lead to meaningful talks with North Korea. Pyongyang may not offer additional opportunities in the future, he said.

Sung Kim, the U.S. special representative for North Korea policy, said in Jan. 13 testimony to the House Foreign Affairs Committee that the United States has made it clear to North Korea that “the door is open to meaningful engagement” but better bilateral relations must be based on “a willingness” by North Korea to “fulfill its denuclearization commitments.”

North Korea has “consistently rebuffed or ignored” U.S. offers for dialogue and instead responded with provocations, he said.

Since the six-party talks fell apart in 2009, North Korea has conducted two nuclear tests and restarted a heavy-water reactor that produces weapons-grade plutonium.

Experts on North Korea questioned the U.S. assertions that suspending the military exercise is not possible.

Robert Carlin, a former senior policy adviser to the U.S. special representative, said on Feb. 11 that the North Korean proposal has a historical basis because the United States suspended joint military exercises with South Korea in 1992. The United States said at the time that the exercise, dubbed “Team Spirit,” was intended to promote North Korea’s cooperation with international nuclear inspectors.

Carlin, now a visiting scholar at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University, said refusing North Korea’s offer because UN Security Council resolutions already forbid nuclear tests ignored the 2012 Leap Day agreement.

In February 2012, the United States and North Korea negotiated a deal under which North Korea agreed to a nuclear and missile testing moratorium in exchange for food aid. (See ACT, April 2012.)

The agreement disintegrated when North Korea attempted to launch a satellite in April 2012. The United States said satellite launches were prohibited under the agreement, but North Korea disagreed. (See ACT, May 2012.)

Carlin said that North Korea knew its latest proposal would be rejected but it was meant as a “starter engine” for talks. Given the recent expansion of North Korea’s production of material for nuclear weapons, Carlin said that talks are opportunities to “uncover what is possible” in negotiations and that the consequences for choosing not to talk with North Korea “could be dire.”

The Chinese analyst also criticized President Barack Obama’s Jan. 22 comments on YouTube, during which he predicted that North Korea would collapse.

The analyst said that such comments would only “instigate additional provocative actions” by North Korea.

The KCNA said on Feb. 4 that it saw no reason to negotiate with the United States, given Washington’s intention to “bring down” North Korea’s government.

The United States rejected North Korea’s offer to halt nuclear testing in exchange for a suspension of joint U.S.-South Korean military exercises.

North Korea Wants Talks, Russia Says

December 2014

By Kelsey Davenport

North Korea is prepared to resume negotiations over its nuclear program without preconditions, according to Russia’s foreign minister.

Sergey Lavrov said on Nov. 20 that Russia had received the assurances from a North Korean special envoy who met with Russian President Vladimir Putin earlier in the week.

North Korean special envoy Choe Ryong Hae meets with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov (not shown) in Moscow on November 20. (ALEXANDER NEMENOV/AFP/Getty Images)The envoy delivered a letter from North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, which said that Pyongyang wanted to restart multilateral talks and promised “cooperation in solving problems that are now lingering on the Korean peninsula,” according to Lavrov.

The so-called six-party talks, which include China, Japan, Russia, South Korea, and the United States, began in 2003 with the goal of dismantling North Korea’s nuclear program and continued intermittently until April 2009, when North Korea said it would no longer participate.

As part of the talks, North Korea committed to denuclearization in a 2005 joint statement with the other five countries. (See ACT, November 2013.)

On July 30, Glyn Davies, special representative for North Korea policy at the U.S. State Department, said that the United States is looking for substantial actions by North Korea on denuclearization before restarting talks. Davies said these actions could include steps by North Korea such as freezing its nuclear program and inviting inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency back into the country. North Korea expelled inspectors in 2009.

These preconditions are necessary because North Korea “increasingly rejects meaningful negotiations,” he said.
Davies was succeeded as special representative by Sung Kim on Nov. 6.

In a Nov. 26 e-mail to Arms Control Today, Duyeon Kim of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace said, “Pyongyang seems to want arms control talks rather than denuclearization talks, which would be unacceptable for Washington and its other six-party partners.”

Due to domestic political pressures, the Obama administration needs an “obvious sign that Pyongyang is serious about denuclearization or else it would be too politically risky for Washington to resume six-party talks without some predictability that talks won’t fail again,” Kim said.

Lavrov’s Nov. 20 announcement came the same day that North Korea threatened a fourth nuclear test in response to a resolution passed by the UN Human Rights Committee on Nov. 18 that recommends referring North Korea to the International Criminal Court for human rights abuses.

Pyongyang’s Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) blamed the United States for orchestrating the resolution and said in a Nov. 20 article that “U.S. hostile action makes it hard for [North Korea] to exercise any restraint any longer in conducting a new nuclear test.”

North Korea tested nuclear devices in October 2006, May 2009, and February 2013 and is believed to have an arsenal of approximately eight to 12 nuclear weapons.

During the run-up to the 2013 test, experts had said North Korea might be attempting to test a miniaturized device that eventually could allow Pyongyang to place nuclear weapons on its missiles.

The KCNA statement on the day of that test said North Korea was testing a miniaturized device. The statement did not provide additional details, and the claim has been difficult for outsiders to substantiate.

On Oct. 25, however, Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, commander of U.S. Forces Korea, told reporters that he believed that the North Koreans have “the capability to have miniaturized a device at this point and they have the technology to potentially actually deliver” such a device.

Scaparotti said he did not believe that North Korea has actually placed a nuclear weapon on a missile and acknowledged that his assessment was not based on “hard evidence” but on his own view of Pyongyang’s technological capabilities.

In April 2013, the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency concluded with “moderate confidence” that North Korea had acquired the capability to place a nuclear weapon on a missile that has a range of less than 1,000 miles.

According to an April 2013 statement from James Clapper, the director of national intelligence, the U.S. intelligence agencies did not all reach the same conclusion, and President Barack Obama also disputed the claim.
South Korea has claimed for some time that North Korea could fit a nuclear warhead on a missile.

A former South Korean official told Arms Control Today last May that Pyongyang can “likely fit a nuclear warhead on a Rodong missile” although it is not certain that the warhead would detonate properly.

The medium-range Rodong missile, also known as the Nodong, is a deployed system with a range of 1,300 kilometers. This places South Korea, Japan, and parts of China within its range.

North Korea may also be pursuing the ability to launch ballistic missiles from a submarine.

According to an Oct. 18 analysis by Joseph Bermudez on 38 North, a website run by the U.S. Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University, North Korea has a previously unidentified submarine at the Sinpo South Shipyard whose design resembles one used by Yugoslavia.

North Korea obtained submarine designs from Yugoslavia during the 1970s and has used the designs on its past submarine work, he said.

Although Bermudez said it was “too early to identify the missions intended for this new class of submarine,” it appeared to be “designed as a test bed for a submarine-launched ballistic missile.”

In a subsequent analysis on Oct. 28, Bermudez noted a new test stand at the Sinpo South Shipyard, “probably intended to explore the possibility of launching ballistic missiles from submarines or of a shipboard vertical launch ballistic missile capability.”

The latter would allow North Korea to launch ballistic missiles from surface ships.

Bermudez cautioned against exaggerating the threat posed by the submarine. He said that if North Korea decides to pursue this capability, “it will likely take years to design, develop, manufacture and deploy an operational submarine-launched ballistic missile force.”

North Korea is prepared to resume negotiations over its nuclear program without preconditions, according to Russia’s foreign minister.

Images Suggest N. Korea Reactor Shutdown

November 2014

By Kelsey Davenport

Satellite images suggest that North Korea may have shut down a nuclear reactor that has been a key part of the county’s nuclear weapons program, according to an analysis by a Washington think tank.

In an Oct. 3 brief, David Albright and Serena Kelleher-Vergantini of the Institute for Science and International Security wrote that images of the Yongbyon site from August and September show that there is no longer steam venting from the reactor or water being discharged from the secondary cooling system. These observations led the two analysts to conclude that the reactor may have been shut down “possibly for either partial refueling or renovations.”

Steam and water discharge are typical indications that a reactor is operating. These signatures were present in past satellite images that the authors analyzed in April and June.

North Korea has not issued any statement on the operational status of the reactor, but a spokesman for the National Peace Committee of Korea said on Oct. 7 in Pyongyang that the North Korean government was continuing to “bolster its nuclear deterrent.”

The reactor produces plutonium, which, when separated, can be used for nuclear weapons. Built in the 1980s, the reactor was shut down and disabled in 2007 as a part of Pyongyang’s negotiations over its nuclear weapons program with six countries, including the United States. Before being shut down, the reactor produced enough weapons-grade plutonium for North Korea’s estimated arsenal of eight to 12 nuclear weapons.

In April 2013, North Korea announced its intention to restart the reactor. (See ACT, May 2013.) Analysis of satellite images from August 2013 indicated that the reactor was likely operational again. (See ACT, October 2013.)

Albright and Kelleher-Vergantini said the reason for the shutdown is unknown but it is unlikely that North Korea is removing the entire core of the reactor. Cores typically last several years, but a partial refueling could have caused the shutdown, the authors wrote. North Korea could also be performing maintenance on or renovating the reactor, they said.

If the reactor was shut down for any of these reasons, it is likely that North Korea will restart it in the future, Albright and Kelleher-Vergantini said.

Satellite imagery from September also shows that North Korea has completed an upgrade to the Sohae Satellite Launching Station, Nick Hansen said in an Oct. 1 piece published by 38 North, a website run by the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University.

Hansen, a former military imagery analyst, wrote that satellite images of the Sohae site show the completion of a “major construction program” that began in early 2013, including an upgrade of the launch pad. The upgrade will enable North Korea to launch rockets that are larger than the Unha-3 satellite launch vehicle, Hansen said. North Korea launched two Unha-3 rockets, which have three stages and are liquid fueled, from the Sohae facility in 2012.

Citing modifications that increased the height of the tower and widened the access road to the launch, Hansen said rockets that are up to 50 meters tall can now be launched from the site. The Unha-3 is about 32 meters tall.

There is no evidence of preparations for another rocket launch, Hansen wrote, but North Korea is “ready to move forward” and could launch a rocket by the end of 2014 if it chose to do so.

Hansen also said the satellite images indicate the completion of several other construction projects at the site, such as new roads, a railroad spur to the main launch pad, and an underground data cable network that links the major facilities at the site.

Satellite images suggest that North Korea may have shut down a nuclear reactor that has been a key part of its nuclear weapons program, according to an analysis by a Washington think tank.

The Agreement that Wasn’t…. the 20th Anniversary of the Agreed Framework

This week marks the 20 th anniversary of the signing of the Agreed Framework between the United States and North Korea, an agreement meant to halt Pyongyang’s nuclear program, but one that would unravel before the decade ended. Over the past two decades the United States has tried a wide range of approaches to curb North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and disarm its nuclear arsenal, but to no avail. Although diplomatic relations between Washington and Pyongyang have remained elusive, continued diplomatic efforts remain the best path forward to deal with the North Korean nuclear threat. Back to the...

After 20 Years of Failed Talks With North Korea, China Needs to Step Up

By Joseph R. DeTrani

Twenty years ago this month, North Korea and the United States concluded the Agreed Framework. That accord halted North Korea’s nuclear weapons program at Yongbyon in exchange for heavy fuel oil and the eventual provision of two light-water reactors (LWRs) at Kumho, North Korea. 

The agreement was the result of prolonged negotiations during a tense period. Unfortunately, its success was temporary. Eventually it became clear that North Korea in the late 1990s was pursuing a clandestine program to enrich uranium for use in nuclear weapons in violation of the Agreed Framework. In October 2002, when an official U.S. delegation confronted the senior North Korean negotiator with this information during talks in Pyongyang, the negotiator admitted that North Korea was pursuing an enrichment program and other unspecified programs.

Subsequent to this admission, North Korean officials maintained that they did not have an enrichment program. They changed their story again in 2010, when they revealed to visiting U.S. nuclear expert Siegfried Hecker that they had an enrichment facility at Yongbyon with 2,000 spinning centrifuges. Hecker was permitted to visit this facility and was impressed with its sophistication.[1] Thus, the issue of North Korea’s clandestine enrichment program was finally put to rest. North Korea proudly admitted having the program, despite its past disclaimers and the skepticism of observers in the United States and China who questioned the U.S. intelligence community’s assessment that North Korea had a clandestine enrichment program for nuclear weapons development.

The October 2002 meeting in Pyongyang triggered a series of events starting with the North pulling out of the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and the United States halting construction of the two LWRs and ceasing shipments of heavy fuel oil. North Korea then started to reprocess the more than 8,000 spent fuel rods at Yongbyon, stored in a cooling pond pursuant to the Agreed Framework, for the purpose of fabricating nuclear weapons. During this period, China brought the United States and North Korea together in April 2003 for talks in Beijing. Those discussions resulted in a decision to establish the six-party talks to address nuclear issues with North Korea through negotiations. The first six-party meeting was in August 2003.

As part of this process, the six parties issued a joint statement on September 19, 2005, committing North Korea to comprehensive and verifiable denuclearization in return for security assurances, economic assistance, and the eventual provision of LWRs. Although some subsequent progress was made, North Korea in 2008 refused to commit to a written verification protocol providing for meaningful monitoring of its denuclearization efforts. When confronted with their lack of cooperation on the monitoring, North Korean officials summarily declared an end to the six-party talks. This declaration came after the United States had complied with a request by North Korean officials to remove their country from the list maintained by the U.S. Department of State of countries supporting terrorism. To date, the six-party talks and related nuclear negotiations with North Korea have not resumed.

The Potential Threat

It is estimated that North Korea has six to 12 plutonium nuclear weapons and an active enrichment program. These realities must be addressed. North Korea has an active ballistic missile program that includes its long-range Taepo Dong missiles and its new KN-08 long-range, solid-fueled mobile missile that, according to people familiar with North Korea’s missile program, is capable of reaching any location in the United States. North Korean missiles now pose an existential threat to South Korea and Japan and, once the KN-08 is operational, will pose such a threat to the United States and other countries.

Since 2006, North Korea has conducted three nuclear tests, four long-range Taepo Dong missile launches, and numerous launches of short- and mid-range ballistic missiles, all in violation of UN Security Council resolutions. The December 2012 Taepo Dong launch successfully put a North Korean satellite in orbit. The routine launches of Pyongyang’s short- and mid-range missiles have established that these missiles are accurate. They are also in abundant supply, as North Korea has sold these missiles and its technical know-how to countries such as Iran, Libya, and Syria. 

Despite UN resolutions prohibiting North Korea from selling or purchasing missiles and high-end weapons, North Korea has done its best to continue to sell these proscribed items, mainly for revenue purposes. The Proliferation Security Initiative, with more than 100 countries participating, has been relatively effective in monitoring North Korea’s consistent attempts to circumvent these resolutions. 

Since the death of Kim Jong Il in December 2011, his son and successor, Kim Jong Un, has assumed a more belligerent approach toward relations with Japan, South Korea, and the United States. With the reconstitution of a reactor, which has a capacity of 5 megawatts electric, and a reprocessing facility, which uses the standard PUREX (plutonium-uranium extraction) process for separating plutonium from spent fuel, at the Yongbyon site, North Korea is capable of producing more fissile material for nuclear weapons and may in fact be doing so. At the same time, Pyongyang apparently is expending resources on the miniaturization of these weapons, with the goal of mating them to ballistic missiles. 

Overall relations with North Korea have deteriorated exponentially since the 2010 sinking of the Cheonan, a South Korean ship, which killed 47 sailors. In March and April 2013, North Korea threatened pre-emptive nuclear attacks against South Korea and the United States and brazenly posted a YouTube video of a simulated nuclear attack on New York City. Pyongyang followed that with the brutal execution in December 2013 of Kim Jong Un’s uncle, Jang Song Thaek, the second-most powerful official in North Korea, and the reported purge of officials whom Jang had appointed. These unsettling developments coincided with the unprecedented shuffling of senior generals in the Korean People’s Army, which contributed to speculation that the domestic situation in North Korea was fluid and potentially volatile. 

North Korea’s active nuclear and missile programs, if unchecked, could encourage other countries such as Japan and South Korea to build their own nuclear weapons despite extended-deterrence commitments from the United States. Senior Japanese and South Korean officials often broach this subject in private conversations with their U.S. counterparts, noting the nuclear threat from North Korea and their concern that North Korea will not give up its nuclear weapons and will build more nuclear weapons and missile delivery systems capable of defeating any missile defense system in these countries. 

Current UN sanctions on North Korea are having a significant impact. Additional UN sanctions may target the leadership’s money and deny Pyongyang access to international financial institutions, which are necessary for the movement and laundering of its money. North Korea undoubtedly will work hard to circumvent these sanctions and acquire needed revenue through the sale of missiles, high-end weapons, and possibly even nuclear materials and nuclear know-how. 

Pyongyang’s past nuclear relationship with Syria should not be forgotten. The preponderance of evidence indicates that North Korea provided Syria with the assistance and materials necessary to build a plutonium-based nuclear weapons program. The key element of the assistance was a gas-graphite reactor with an estimated capacity of 40 megawatts thermal, making it similar to but larger than North Korea’s Yongbyon reactor.[2] This is a powerful reminder that nuclear proliferation from North Korea is a concern.

Chinese Action Needed

Progress in addressing North Korea’s nuclear programs depends greatly on China’s role because North Korea depends on China for food and most of its energy supply. Historically, the bilateral relationship with China, memorialized in a 1961 treaty, was deep and thorough—like “teeth and lips,” as it was described in a common refrain from China and North Korea during the warmer days of their relationship. 

China is North Korea’s only meaningful ally, even with the current tension in the bilateral relationship. After the implosion of the Soviet Union, Russia scaled back its relations with North Korea, leaving only China as the North’s true benefactor. Indeed, China provides North Korea with more than 70 percent of the country’s requirements for crude oil; significant amounts of food and aviation fuel also come from China. Chinese-North Korean trade was worth more than $1.3 billion last year, with China investing heavily in the North’s precious-metals sector. Although bilateral relations have deteriorated since Kim Jong Un succeeded his father and one seldom hears the “teeth and lips” refrain, the relationship is still strong.

Given the close and long-standing relationship between the two countries and the reliance of North Korea on China for energy and food assistance, the United States believes that China can exert more pressure on the North to return to meaningful nuclear negotiations and persuade North Korea to take some important steps. In particular, North Korea would be expected to declare that it is still committed to the 2005 joint statement and thus is prepared to dismantle its nuclear program in return for assurances that the United States and other countries would not invade the North or seek regime change and for economic assistance that would include engagement with international financial institutions, the provision of LWRs, and, ultimately, the establishment of normal relations with Japan, South Korea, and the United States. 

Only China has this leverage with North Korea, and it is in China’s interest to use this leverage to ensure that North Korea returns to meaningful negotiations. A refusal by North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons could incite other countries in the region to pursue their own nuclear weapons programs, as noted above. Such a development would be of great concern to China. Also of concern to Beijing would be the possible proliferation of nuclear materials and the resulting adverse effects on China of such proliferation. 

As it did in 2003, China should promptly convene an exploratory meeting in Beijing with North Korea and the four other countries involved in the six-party talks process. This meeting would determine if North Korea is committed to fulfilling the terms of the 2005 joint statement. If it is committed to that goal, then the resumption of talks, focusing on implementation of the joint statement, would be possible. This would benefit the international community and constitute a diplomatic success for China. Convincing China’s new leader, Xi Jinping, to take the lead on this issue also could lead to a closer dialogue on other issues currently affecting China’s relationship with the United States and other countries.

If North Korea refuses to give up its nuclear weapons, then China, Japan, Russia, South Korea, and the United States need a strategy for dealing with a nuclear North Korea capable of destabilizing the region. This strategy would need to ensure that North Korea does not proliferate missiles, high-end weapons, and nuclear materials.

Permitting North Korea to retain and build more nuclear weapons will destabilize Northeast Asia. That could lead to a nuclear arms race in the region and the potential for a progressively isolated and desperate North Korea proliferating nuclear materials and know-how. China, with the support of the United States, must prevent this from happening. 

Joseph R. DeTrani, the president of the Intelligence and National Security Alliance, was U.S. special envoy for the six-party talks with North Korea from 2003 to 2006. He was mission manager for North Korea from 2006 to 2010 and director of the National Counterproliferation Center from 2010 to 2012 in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of any government department or agency. 


1. Peter Crail, “N. Korea Reveals Uranium-Enrichment Plant,” Arms Control Today, December 2010.

2. David Albright and Paul Brannan, “The Al Kibar Reactor: Extraordinary Camouflage, Troubling Implications,” ISIS Report, May 12, 2008, http://isis-online.org/uploads/isis-reports/documents/SyriaReactorReport_12May2008.pdf; David Albright and Paul Brannan, “Syria Update III: New Information About Al Kibar Reactor Site,” ISIS Report, April 24, 2008, http://isis-online.org/uploads/isis-reports/documents/SyriaUpdate_24April2008.pdf.

China, North Korea’s only meaningful ally, should use its leverage to ensure that Pyongyang returns to meaningful negotiations on its nuclear weapons program. 

Congress Questions Policy on N. Korea

Kelsey Davenport

Members of Congress questioned the Obama administration’s policy toward negotiations with North Korea over its nuclear program at a July 30 hearing and expressed concern about Pyongyang’s growing nuclear and ballistic missile programs.

Rep. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Asia and the Pacific, said the administration’s “so-called strategic patience policy is crumbling to pieces” and that North Korea’s nuclear weapons program “continues unfettered.”

As described by U.S. officials, the strategic patience policy seeks to hobble North Korean nuclear and missile programs through U.S. and international efforts to prevent the import and export of proliferation-sensitive materials and restart negotiations after Pyongyang demonstrates its commitment to dismantling its nuclear weapons program. For more than a decade, North Korea has had intermittent talks with the United States and its four negotiating partners—China, Japan, Russia, and South Korea—in the so-called six-party talks.

Glyn Davies, special representative for North Korea policy at the State Department, defended the administration’s approach at the hearing, saying that because North Korea “increasingly rejects meaningful negotiations,” the United States is looking for meaningful actions by North Korea before restarting talks. Davies said these actions could include steps by North Korea such as freezing its nuclear program and inviting inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency back into the country.

Davies said it might take continued diplomatic overtures combined with “the patient application of increasing amounts of pressure” to make North Korea realize its current path is “leading [it] nowhere.”

Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) said that “both carrots and sticks” are necessary to change North Korea’s behavior. He said the United States should discuss a nonaggression pact with North Korea and work with China to stem the “enormous subsidies” that Beijing sends to Pyongyang.

Davies said that negotiations with North Korea are a “multilateral task” and the United States is making progress working with countries in the region, including China, to push North Korea to take steps toward denuclearization in order to resume negotiations. Washington is also unilaterally tightening sanctions that “increase the cost” of North Korea’s illicit activities, he said.

North Korea committed to denuclearization in a 2005 joint statement with the other members of the six-party talks, but more recently, Pyongyang has said that it wants negotiations on its nuclear program to resume without any preconditions. (See ACT, November 2013.)

Those talks began in 2003 with the goal of dismantling North Korea’s nuclear program. The multilateral negotiations were held intermittently until North Korea announced in April 2009 that it would no longer participate.

Washington has also negotiated bilaterally with North Korea in the past.

Pyongyang is believed to possess the nuclear material for approximately four to eight nuclear weapons and is working to increase its stockpile of weapons-usable nuclear material. (See ACT, January/February 2014.)

At a July 30 hearing, members of Congress questioned the Obama administration’s policy toward negotiations with North Korea over its nuclear program.


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