North Korea’s nuclear program has long been the subject of extensive negotiations. To see related acronyms about this country, please check ABBREVIATIONFINDER where you can see that NK stands for North Korea. The 1994 agreement between North Korea and the United States to curb North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, while the United States and South Korea promised to support civilian development and use of nuclear energy, is an important factor in North Korea’s development.
In 1997, an office in North Korea was opened for this collaboration with the participation of South Korea. The talks were then developed to include four more countries: China, Japan, the Russian Federation and the United States.
The economic development during the 1990s and the beginning of the 2000s was not favorable. However, defense costs in 1985-96 increased from 23.0% to 27.2% of GDP. They then declined to increase again in 2003-05, reaching about 18% of GDP.
During 2008-09, the conflict with South Korea escalated. In the spring of 2009, North Korea conducted short- and long-range missiles with nuclear weapons missiles, while the economy was getting weaker and leader Kim Jong Il became ill. In late 2009, Kim Jong Il returned to the leadership, and it was sought to resume negotiations, but with the stated goal of being recognized as a nuclear power. Incidents and renewed exchanges culminated in July 2010 with sanctions against North Korea from the US, a major naval maneuver with units from the US and South Korea, and an invitation from the US President for a summit in the US in the fall of 2010.
Kim Jong Un’s first appearance on the world political scene was in connection with a failed rocket launch in April 2012, an event that caused heavy criticism from, among others, South Korea, Japan and the United States and was considered a further setback in the Korea issue. North Korea’s ambition to supply the country with nuclear weapons can primarily be seen as a strategic positioning against the outside world and mainly the United States. The tactics have intensified under Kim Jong Un’s leadership.
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In February 2013, North Korea conducted a nuclear test, which was strongly condemned by the world community and China. New nuclear weapons tests were carried out in January and September 2016, which resulted in the UN Security Council adopting three resolutions imposing stricter sanctions. Historically strained relations between North Korea and the United States escalated in 2017 following a harsh rhetoric between Kim Jong Un and US President Donald Trump. Another nuclear test was conducted in September 2017. The explosive force was then at least ten times as large as in the last nuclear test in 2016.
The defense (2010) is based on general military duty with an initial service of at least five years (the Air Force three years). The defense is organized in an army of 950,000 men with 17 army corps, 3,500 tanks and a special command of 88,000 men. The reserves amount to 600,000 people. The fleet comprises about 46,000 men with 63 submarines, 8 larger battleships, 330 patrol boats and 250 landing boats.
The Air Force comprises 110,000 men with approximately 620 fighter aircraft, of which 35 MiG-29 and 24 Mi-24 (attack helicopters). Semi-military security forces including border troops amount to 190,000 men. The working militia is a mobilizable reserve of about 3.5 million people. The material represents four generations and is of Chinese, Soviet/Russian and domestic origin. Much of the reliability of older equipment is low.
North Korea has been a member of the UN since 1991.
North Korea has one of the world’s largest military forces measured by personnel, but the training is considered to be of a low standard, and weapons and equipment are mostly in poor condition or outdated. After Kim Jong-un took over as dictator, the Communist Party has taken over the Army’s previous influence over politics and business.
Military service is the constitution for all citizens, but military service takes place after selection. The initial service is 5-12 years in the Army, 5-10 years in the Navy and 3-4 years in the Air Force. The total force figures for North Korea’s armed forces are about 1,280,000 active personnel, with a reserve of about 600,000 personnel (2018, IISS). In addition, 189,000 semi-military (including border guards and security forces), with a reserve of 5,700,000 personnel.
North Korea has airborne cruise missiles and has developed ballistic missiles that can be equipped with nuclear warheads. North Korea claims to have nuclear weapons, and the country has carried out test blasts.
The North Korean army has about 1,100,000 active personnel. Heavy equipment includes over 3,500 tanks (mostly older types such as the Soviet T-34, T-55, T-62 and Chinese type 59), over 560 light tanks, and over 2,500 armored vehicles.
The Air Force has around 110,000 active personnel. The equipment includes over 400 fighter jets (107 J-5, 100 J-6, 120 J-7 and MiG-21, 56 MiG-23, and at least 18 MiG-29), 30 fighter aircraft of the type MiG-21bis, 34 attack aircraft Budget Su-25, 80 bombers of the type H-5, 217 transport planes and 286 helicopters. In addition, the Air Force has light and medium-sized drones.
The Navy has around 60,000 active personnel. The fleet comprises 73 tactical submarines, one of which is used for the testing of ballistic missiles, two frigates, 383 patrol vessels, 24 minesweepers, 267 landing craft, and 23 logistics and auxiliary vessels.
North Korea – nuclear weapons
North Korea has been suspected of developing nuclear weapons since the 1980s, and has received huge accolades for promising to refrain from such a program. In 2005, North Korea declared itself as nuclear power, and the United States, Japan, South Korea, Russia and China have tried unsuccessfully to reverse this development through joint negotiations.
It sparked international dismay when, in October 2002, North Korea quite openly admitted to leading the world: The regime had kept a secret nuclear weapons program going for years, contravening the 1994 agreement. The North Koreans now even claimed that they had already manufactured nuclear weapons. However, the world was in the wild as to whether this was a bluff aimed at making use of the nuclear threat as political and economic pressure. Internationally, the alarm went serious when, in January 2003, Pyongyang threw out inspectors from the United Nations Atomic Energy Agency IAEA and wrecked the Treaty against the proliferation of nuclear weapons.
Following constant pressure from the outside world, Kim Jong-il agreed in August 2003 on multinational discussions about the weapons program. At the negotiating table in Beijing besides the host country China also included the US, South Korea, Japan and Russia. During the negotiation game, in March 2005, North Korea officially declared itself a nuclear power with purportedly developed nuclear weapons. After six difficult rounds of negotiations, an agreement was signed in September 2005 in which North Korea in principle promises to end the weapons program against various objections. However, the parties immediately disagreed on how the agreement should be interpreted, implemented and monitored. North Korea declared that the country would still not run the nuclear program until clear benefits were put on the table. Thus, the tug of war continued without a final solution. Skeptics have pointed to North Korea’s tradition of surprising play and breach of contract, with the 1994 agreement on the scrapping of the weapons program as one example.
In July 2006, North Korea conducted missiles with different-range missiles, including the long-range Taepodong-2. This is believed to be a fully developed three-stage rocket capable of reaching parts of the United States (Alaska, Hawaii, Guam). However, it crashed shortly after the US National Day shooting on July 4. The rocket tests were condemned by the UN Security Council.
Into the nuclear weapons club
North Korea took the leap into the so-called nuclear weapons club in three steps:
- The announcement in February 2005 that the country had acquired nuclear weapons.
- A new triumphant announcement in October 2006: A nuclear test had been conducted for the first time.
- A much more powerful test explosion number 2 was announced on May 25, 2009.
In parallel with the nuclear weapons program, North Korea continued to develop ballistic missiles. Obviously, the goal is an intercontinental release, which will not only have South Korea and Japan, but also parts of the United States (Alaska) and Australia within easy reach. So far, the trial launches have failed to demonstrate such an action radius.
The underground explosion on October 9, 2006 was recorded by seismic stations. Technical data could indicate that the nuclear explosive charge was hardly a fully developed weapon and the explosive power relatively low. Still, it came as a shock to the outside world that Kim Il Sung’s regime, considered notoriously erratic and often threateningly aggressive, now stood on the threshold of the nuclear weapons club. The UN Security Council passed Resolution 1718 which punished North Korea with sanctions.
Following targeted international pressure, including from China, North Korea returned to the six-party talks. In February 2007, the North Koreans signed an agreement with a commitment to halt the nuclear weapons program and bring in UN inspectors. In return, North Korea should receive food assistance, free oil deliveries and the start of a process aimed at normalizing relations with the United States and Japan. Under certain conditions, North Korea was offered diplomatic recognition with Washington security guarantees. The United States would then remove North Korea from the list of so-called robber states, withdraw the allegations of state terrorism and end an extensive trade blockade.
The blockade also hit a bank in Macao, a region of special status within the People’s Republic of China. The bank had allegedly been responsible for money laundering for North Korea on a large scale. This should have happened, among other things, in connection with a massive production of counterfeit dollar bills and other currencies, as well as pirated production of well-known brands.
The February agreement was followed up with practical measures. In May 2007, the US Food Aid was resumed after three years of disruption. In July, North Korea declared that the country had shut down the Yongbyon reactor, which had supplied the nuclear weapons program with plutonium. At the same time, inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) arrived. They could now resume their control function after being abruptly thrown out of the country in 2002.
Following the Korea Summit in October 2007, the six-party negotiations also received a push ahead. North Korea is now committed to full transparency in all parts of the nuclear weapons program. This happened in the form of a nuclear “tax return” that was delivered in June 2008, albeit six months after the deadline. Here, North Korea is said to have produced over 40 kilograms of plutonium, enough for about half a dozen bombs. However, it did not reveal how many nuclear weapons the country has. Nor was any response to the US assertion: North Korea has beside plutonium program also kept going a strictly kept secret program for the enrichment of uranium.
Loud games in Yongbyon
In August 2008, North Korea made a complete turnaround. The dismantling of Yongbyon the reactor had been shut down and would be restored, North Korea announced, stating: The United States had not yet cleared North Korea of the “terrorist list”. In September, North Korea went a step further with a threat that plutonium production would be resumed. UN inspectors were able to confirm that the reactor was now being rebuilt – and was then expelled from Yongbyon. In October 2008, the announcement came from Washington: North Korea had now been deleted from the list of states that are waging state terror. Trade restrictions would be abolished. North Korea then stopped work on rebuilding the Yongbyon complex. The canceled job of dismantling the reactor would also resume. But in November a new play came:
Rockets towards the Pacific
In January 2009, North Korea once again created anxiety with plans to launch a new range of rockets, similar to previous test series in 1998, 2003 and 2006. South Korea now claimed that North Korea had developed an intercontinental rocket with range up to that point. northern Australia, Hawaii and the US Pacific Island of Guam. After North Korea threatened to send long-range missiles to Hawaii, the new test series led to increased US preparedness.
On April 5, 2009, the North Koreans launched a three-stage long-range Taepodong-2 missile. The official announcement stated that the rocket had brought a communications satellite into orbit around the earth. However, international observation stations could establish that no such satellite existed. On the other hand, it was found that parts of the rocket had fallen into the Japan Sea, and also in the Pacific after the Japan flight. Apparently, only two of the steps had worked. They had given the rocket a range of well over 3,000 kilometers – longer than a previous version of Taepodong-2 had been capable of. With full effect also of the third stage, the estimated range would be 6700 kilometers which, for example, Alaska would be within.
Officially, the missile tests are part of North Korea’s space program. The outside world, however, views the space program as a mere shell for the development of intercontinental missiles – with the potential for shipping nuclear warheads to, among other things, US targets. The rocket program has been running in parallel with the nuclear weapons program. This has been of particular concern to Japan since North Korea already fired a mid-range missile in 1998. It landed in the Pacific after passing unannounced over Japan.
Powerful new blast
The rocket test on April 5, 2009 was condemned by the UN Security Council, which indicated that such attempts had been banned in Resolution 1716 of July 2006. The result was new sanctions. North Korea reacted with vehement rhetoric, declaring that the Yongbyon reactor would now be put back into operation. Production of plutonium for weapons purposes would resume immediately. A seemingly very aggrieved North Korea demanded that the UN apologize for its criticism of the missile test. If North Korea did not want to demonstrate its great indignation with a new nuclear test, Pyongyang said.
On May 25, 2009, North Korea did just that with its # 2 underground blast detonation measured at 4.52 on Richter’s scale. Seismic measurements indicated that it was between 10 and 20 times more powerful than the 2006 detonation – a blast force that could by far compare with the US bomb that destroyed Nagasaki and killed over 70,000 in 1945.
To top it off, North Korea followed up the nuclear test by firing five short-range rockets over the Japan Sea shortly thereafter. This type of rocket has parts of Japan and South Korea within easy reach. At the same time, North Korea again stated that the country will never return to the six-party negotiations, but on the contrary “strengthen the country’s nuclear defense in every conceivable way”. It threatened even more nuclear tests and rocket tests if the UN still would not apologize for criticizing the rocket launch in April.
The Security Council did not ask for an apology, but on the contrary, with Resolution 1874 and further sanctions, primarily the inspection of shipping to and from North Korea. The resolution requires the UN’s 192 member states to board ships to or from North Korea when there is suspicion of shipping weapons-related material. This is to prevent Pyongyang from receiving material from outside for further development of weapons of mass destruction. North Korea will also be in possession of chemical and bacteriological weapons. Inspections will also make it more difficult for North Korea to sell advanced weapons technology to terrorist networks and other world market stakeholders. Past and current customers are Libya, Iran, Syria, Pakistan and Myanmar.
North Korea declared that all attempts at control and inspection of shipping and other goods transport would be considered a declaration of war. If provoked, nuclear weapons would also be used in a merciless offensive. In late May 2009, North Korea again threatened military retaliation against South Korea. Seoul had then joined the so-called Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) to stop the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. This entails, inter alia, control measures for ship traffic. North Korea now declared that the country no longer considered itself bound by the ceasefire agreement that put an end to the Korean War in 1953. The country would turn all its existing stock of plutonium into nuclear weapons. Also wanted to work with enrichment of uranium being resumed, it sounded from Pyongyang.
Paradoxically, the contentious rhetoric was seen as an attempt to get the United States to speak. North Korea will show that what nuclear power now holds with stronger negotiating cards than before. With nuclear weapons as a means of pressure, the regime hopes to secure its continued existence, despite the ongoing hunger crisis and economic bankruptcy. Kim Jong-il has used the nuclear program as a means of extortion since the 1990s, which has yielded good gains in the form of assistance of various kinds – but also accusations of systematic double play.
Diplomats who followed the trend in 2009 had become more skeptical of the hope that the fresh nuclear power would be able to “buy” with aid funds. After more than 50 years of determined work, North Korea will maintain its new status, cost whatever it wants. Kim Jong-il knew that whatever he did, food aid would continue to come from outside. The outside world obviously cared more than “Dear Leader” about his distressed compatriots, this reasoning sounded. Following strong verbal outcries against the United States and South Korea in August, there appeared to be an apparent reversal of a more conciliatory mood. This was particularly evident after former President Bill Clinton’s “private” visit to release two US journalists.
The US State Department announced on September 11 that the United States was willing to initiate direct, two-sided talks on North Korea’s nuclear program. Such a dialogue was precisely what North Korea has wanted – not conversations where South Korea, China, Japan and Russia were also involved. Initially, the framework was to be negotiated.
Estimates of North Korea’s nuclear capacity vary. As Western intelligence considers it, North Korea is currently barely in possession of fully operational nuclear weapons in the form of missiles with nuclear warheads mounted. But the North Koreans are believed to be making progress in mastering the technological challenges. There are indications that technological aids for enriching plutonium may have come from Pakistan as part of a highly unofficial barter trade, with North Korean rocket technology being reused.
Now also uranium-based nuclear weapons
On September 4, 2009, North Korea announced an announcement that uranium enrichment trials had reached a “successful final phase”. The announcement is considered to be the clearest sign of Pyongyang’s dual nuclear weapons program going on for years. Unlike the official plutonium program, the uranium project has been kept secret. Now it was announced that North Korea is also preparing to manufacture nuclear weapons using uranium, having mastered the technological challenges associated with this fissile material.
The announcement raised concerns in the outside world, but did not come as a big surprise. For years, it has been suspected that North Korea had an “extra” nuclear weapons program based on enriched uranium. In 2002, North Korean diplomats had privately admitted a uranium project. This was since officially denied, until it was established in June 2009 that trials were underway. However, no one has known how far Pyongyang had come in uranium enrichment before it was determined in September that North Korea is now able to use this fissile material for nuclear weapons as well.
The announcement also stated that North Korea continues to manufacture nuclear weapons using plutonium. The process of recovering plutonium from spent fuel rods at the Yangbyon reactor is about to be completed, and this material is being turned into weapons, it was called. The two bombs North Korea has blasted have been plutonium-based.
Bill Clinton meets Kim Jong Il
In June 2009, two American journalists, Laura Ling and Edna Lee, were sentenced to 12 years in prison for charges of “hostile acts”. They were apprehended at the border with China where they worked on a report on North Koreans fleeing to China to escape hunger and repression. The journalists thus became a new North Korean negotiating card in the battle for the nuclear weapons program. North Korea has insisted on negotiating directly with the United States, without the other players in the six-party talks.
Former President Bill Clinton surprisingly came to Pyongyang in early August to negotiate release for the imprisoned journalists. Clinton was welcomed by Kim Jong-il, who had previously refused entry to former presidential candidate Al Gore. The two women were immediately released and accompanied Clinton on the flight back to the United States. Although the visit was described as “private,” it raised hopes of getting nuclear negotiations with Pyongyang out of deadlock.