Revisiting History: North Korea and Nuclear Weapons
For most American observers, the North Korea (DPRK) nuclear issue begins in the late 1980s and early 1990s, as leaders in Pyongyang, faced with the loss of their Cold War alliance relationships and confronting unparalleled challenges to the survival of the regime, sought security through pursuit of nuclear weapons and diplomatic breakthroughs with the United States.
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For most American observers, the North Korea (DPRK) nuclear issue begins in the late 1980s and early 1990s, as leaders in Pyongyang, faced with the loss of their Cold War alliance relationships and confronting unparalleled challenges to the survival of the regime, sought security through pursuit of nuclear weapons and diplomatic breakthroughs with the United States. For Jonathan D. Pollack, professor of Asian and Pacific Studies at the Naval War College, and research associate of the National Asia Research Program, this perspective is largely ahistorical and far too America-centric. Reconstruction of North Korea's earlier thinking about nuclear weapons enables a far richer understanding of the North Korean system, and of how the past continues to shape the behavior of this insular and highly idiosyncratic regime.
Pollack noted that there is a much longer lineage to North Korea's awareness of nuclear weapons and its interest in nuclear science and technology that even antedates the establishment of the DPRK in 1948. The Kim Il Sung regime learned from the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that two atomic weapons could force an empire that once stretched across East Asia to capitulate. Pyongyang actively engaged in nuclear research programs in the 1950s, when it feared that North Korea might lag behind South Korea. The North agreed to peaceful development programs with the Soviet Union in order to establish nuclear infrastructure. The Soviets helped to build and establish a reactor at Yongbyong, which would later be central to American concerns about nuclear developments on the peninsula. However, the withdrawal of Soviet missiles from Cuba at the conclusion of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis led the North Korean regime to worry that Pyongyang might be abandoned by its superpower protectors. Increasingly, nuclear weapons became seen as a way of guaranteeing North Korean security.
However, only in the 1970s did the regime initiate a nuclear program in earnest. During this time, Kim was motivated by envy at South Korea's economic development, a continuing need to secure Pyongyang's independence from Beijing and Moscow, and a desire to leave a legacy for his successor and son, Kim Jong Il. Ironically, Pyongyang saw the emerging global nuclear non-proliferation regime in the 1970s as a way of enhancing its ability to acquire a nuclear deterrent. North Korea joined the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in 1974 and between 1975 and 1979 had a nuclear scientist stationed at the IAEA's head office in Geneva. The scientist's key role was to siphon information from the agency in order to learn how to design a nuclear reactor. In 1980, North Korea was able to build a reactor that could produce weapons-grade plutonium. In the decades since then, the reactor has since generated power sufficient for only 23 days of electricity, leading Pollack to the conclusion that right from the beginning the regime had other uses for the reactor in mind.
In sum, Pollack noted that by the time the United States began to take the North Korean nuclear program seriously, the pursuit of a nuclear deterrent was already "rooted in the identity" of the North Korean system. There was no real deep U.S. engagement with Korea on nuclear weapons until the 1990s, and there is little to suggest that resistance to the United States is the primary lens through which Pyongyang has viewed its pursuit of a nuclear deterrent. To quote the words of one East German ambassador to the DPRK, "You Americans always think that it is about you. But it is not."
By Bryce Wakefield
Robert M. Hathaway, Director, Asia Program
The Asia Program promotes policy debate and intellectual discussions on U.S. interests in the Asia-Pacific as well as political, economic, security, and social issues relating to the world’s most populous and economically dynamic region. Read more
North Korea International Documentation Project
The North Korea International Documentation Project serves as an informational clearinghouse on North Korea for the scholarly and policymaking communities, disseminating documents on the DPRK from its former communist allies that provide valuable insight into the actions and nature of the North Korean state. It is part of the Wilson Center's History and Public Policy Program. Read more