North Korea Nuclear Weapons
This article addresses the issue of North Korea nuclear weapons in the context of international relations. This article will examine a number of frequently asked questions regarding North Korea’s nuclear program, such as the history of North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, the type of nuclear weapons North Korea possesses, North Korea’s nuclear tests, as well as how states are responding to North Korea in international relations and the international system.
How Many Nuclear Weapons Does North Korea Have?
According to reports as of April, 2013, “[i]n total, it is estimated that North Korea has between 30 and 50 kilograms of separated plutonium, enough for at least half a dozen nuclear weapons. North Korea’s plutonium production reactor at Yongbyon has been shuttered since its cooling tower was destroyed under international agreement in June 2008. However, on April 1, 2013, North Korea said it would resume operation of its plutonium production reactor. Experts estimate it will take approximately six months to restart. This would provide North Korea with approximately one bomb’s worth of plutonium per year” (Nikitin, 2013). Other figures suggest similar figures, estimating between 4-8 nuclear weapons (Kim, 2013). However, following additional nuclear tests by North Korea, more recent figures that have been estimated are suggesting that North Korea could have as many as 21 nuclear weapons (or more) (Reuters, 2016).
While it is difficult to know how much uranium North Korea has for certain, experts say that they do have many reserves. Experts also note that, as of September 2016, “North Korea will have enough material for about 20 nuclear bombs by the end of this year with enhanced uranium-enrichment facilities and an existing stockpile of plutonium” (Al Jazeera, 2016).
In terms of the type of nuclear weapons that North Korea has, it has been able to produce short and medium range missiles, but has not tested long-range missiles, and “[i]t is generally believed to have not yet developed the capabilities needed to miniaturize a nuclear device for missile delivery” (Kim, 2013).
Below is a visual figure depicting North Korea’s nuclear weapons range.
How Did North Korea Get Nuclear Weapons?
In order to understand how North Korea acquired nuclear capabilities, it is important to examine the historical and political evolution of the state and state political conditions, beginning at the end of the Second World War. Following the end of the war, opposing powers Japan and the United States, each had territorial control of different parts of Korea, with Japan in northern Korea, and the United States in southern Korea (BBC, 2014). In 1946, the communist Korean Workers’ Party comes to power in northern Korea, with the backing of the Soviet Union. Two years later, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea was established. Then, another two years after this announcement in the north, South Koreans declared independence from the North, which led to a military response from North Korea (BBC, 2014). This conflict involved outside actors such as the United States. The two sides halted fighting in 1953 (BBC, 2014), during the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union.
In the 1950s, the leader of North Korea at the time, Kim Il-sung initiated what has been seen as the first aspects of a future nuclear program by having citizens participate in a program called “Atoms for Peace,” which was “modeled after President Eisenhower’s initiative of the same name, [and which] enabled several hundred North Korean students and researchers to be educated and trained in Soviet universities and nuclear research centers” (Hecker, 2010). Also around this time, “In December 1952, the government established the Atomic Energy Research Institute and the Academy of Sciences, but nuclear work only began to progress when North Korea established cooperative agreements with the Soviet Union” (NTI, 2014).
However, in the following decade, the Soviet Union was very active in helping North Korea build nuclear capabilities. For example, “the Soviets built a research reactor, the IRT-2000, and associated nuclear facilities at Yongbyon in the 1960s. North Korean specialists trained at these facilities and by the 1970s were prepared to launch a nuclear program without external assistance” (Hecker, 2010: 44-45), as they continued to build upon the initial nuclear program (NTI, 2014). However, in the 1960s, Kim Il-sung also tried to get additional outside support for their program, as he approached Chinese leader Mao Zedong regarding divulging nuclear technology information after the China’s nuclear test in 1964; he was however denied (NTI, 2014).
Is North Korea a Party to any International Conventions Regarding Nuclear Weapons, Chemical Weapons, or Biological Weapons?
North Korea Nuclear Weapons Tests
North Korea first conducted a nuclear test in October of 2006. And it was a few years later, in 2009, in which North Korea set of its second nuclear weapon. The third nuclear test was in early 2013. Even before the third test Siegrfried S. Hecker (2013) wrote about the reasons as to why North Korea would carry out a test. He stated that:
“Without additional nuclear tests, North Korea is greatly limited in its ability to miniaturize a nuclear device to fit on one of its missiles. The 2006 and 2009 tests demonstrated that North Korea can build a nuclear device, but that its nuclear arsenal is likely limited to bulky devices that would need to be delivered by plane, boat, or van, thereby greatly limiting their deterrent value. To make its nuclear arsenal more menacing and provide the deterrent power Pyongyang’s vitriolic pronouncements are aimed to achieve, North Korea must demonstrate that it can deliver the weapons on missiles at a distance.”
In January of 2016, North Korea conducted the fourth of its nuclear tests. Then, on September 9th, 2016, South Korea stated that North Korea carried out a fifth nuclear test; “Seismic activity, with a magnitude of 5.3, was detected around 9 a.m. local time (8:30 p.m. ET) near Punggye-ri, Kilju County — the same location as four other tests” (Hunt & Kwon, 2016).
This nuclear test seems to be the largest North Korean nuclear weapons test in the country’s history.
Along with these nuclear tests, it is also important to point out that in March of 2014, North Korea also shot off “two medium-range Nodong ballistic missiles for the first time since 2009” (BBC, 2014). This is also important because North Korea later also “claimed to have miniaturized nuclear warheads and has tested several ballistic missiles, including some launched from a submarine” (Hunt & Kwon, 2016). As it has been noted, “The development and proliferation of Pyongyang’s missile industry is viewed as major security threat, not only because of the frequent threats leader Kim Jong Un issues to Washington and Seoul, but because missile technology is linked to the country’s nuclear capabilities” (CNBC, 2016).
Why does North Korea Have Nuclear Weapons?
Scholars have postulated a number of theories as to why North Korea has devoted time and resources to building up their nuclear program throughout the decades. The argument can be broken down into three categories; Security; Domestic Politics issues; Norms issues (Sagan, 1996).
Security: One argument as to why North Korea, or states in general may be building nuclear weapons is because of a security threat that they may feel exists. In the case of North Korea, some have argued that “Security concerns have been the central driver of the North Korean ruling regime since the birth of the nation after World War II” (Hecker, 2010: 46). As Siegfried Hecker (2010) argues: “Much of Pyongyang’s nuclear decision-making can be understood by examining how Pyongyang saw its security environment evolve over the years. The devastating Korean War, resolved only by an armistice, and the U.S. threat to use nuclear weapons likely moved Kim Il-sung to pursue nuclear weapons on. He likely strengthened his resolve to pursue his own bomb when China, shortly after its own first nuclear test in 1964, turned down his request to share its atomic secrets” Then, as the Cold War was intensifying between the United States and Russia, and the US continued to provide military support to South Korea, as well as the ability for the United States to have North Korean ally, the Soviet Union, take out the nuclear missiles from Cuba, it seemed that there was a belief by the leader that in order to be secure in the international system, a domestic nuclear program would be needed. This concern about security seemed to increase following the fall of the Soviet Union, who was no longer in a position to provide aid to North Korea.
As Kaplan (2016) writes: “North Korea wants a nuclear arsenal for the same reason some other countries, especially smaller countries, would like to have one—to deter an attack by enemies. North Korea genuinely fears an American invasion and always has. The Kim dynasty has amassed its power, and oppressed its own people, by hyping this fear. From the regime’s beginnings just after World War II, its leaders have regarded their nation as a “shrimp among whales” whose survival relies on playing the bigger powers off one another. The first two Kims played this game very shrewdly.”
Furthermore, this was coupled by fast economic growth of its neighbors such as South Korea and China, and the willingness of once allied states to go ahead and recognizing South Korea (Hecker, 2010: 48-49). And while North Korea in turn shifted towards a more workable relationship with the United States, this did not last long, as many US officials did not support the Agreement set forth with North Korea; this position continued with the election of President George W. Bush. Some argue they were further concerned after the United States, led by the Bush administration, went to war with Iraq. Hecker (2010) writes: “Pyongyang now believed the bomb would assure its survival, so it no longer hid its nuclear weapons aspirations” (50).
Related to this, as the BBC (2016) notes, “The North has also been angered by a US and South Korean plan to install an anti-missile defence system in the South and by the allies’ massive annual joint military exercises, which are still taking place” (BBC, 2016) and thus, given the rhetoric from North Korea, it is quite possible that Kim Jong-Un may be trying to sell the idea of outside threats to their citizens. In fact, this has been an issue not only for North Korea, but also allies of North Korea (such as China, who, along with Russia), have been critical of the anti-missile defense system (CNBC, 2016). Yet, the US and South Korea don’t seem to have any intension of stopping their advancement on the anti-missile defense system. Furthermore, on September 13th, 2016, following the September 2016 North Korea nuclear weapons test, “The United States…sent two nuclear-capable supersonic bombers streaking over ally South Korea in a show of force meant to cow North Korea after its recent nuclear test and also to settle rattled nerves in the South” (Yahoo News, 2016) (It should be noted that “Such flyovers are common when always high animosity rises on the Korean Peninsula, which is technically in a state of war as there has never been a peace treaty to officially end the 1950-53 Korean War”) (Yahoo News, 2016).
North Korean leadership has said as much about their interest to further their nuclear weapons program during the opening of the 2016 United Nations at the General Assembly. For example, “North Korean Foreign Minister Ri Yong Ho described his country’s nuclear weapons as “a righteous self-defense measure” against “constant nuclear threats of the United States.”” He went on to say that “”As long as there exists a nuclear-weapon state in hostile relations with the DPRK, our national security and peace on the Korean peninsula can be defended only with reliable nuclear deterrence”” (Brunnstrom, 2016). He also said that the United States and South Korea were doing things that is meant to be doing things with the intention of getting rid of the North Korean leadership, and also that the UN has been “”playing the role of covering up the highhandeness and arbitrariness of the United States”” (Brunnstrom, 2016).
South Korea itself announced that they do have a plan to assassinate the leader of North Korea if they feel threatened. They made this statement following the fifth nuclear weapons test conducted by North Korea in September 2016. Speaking on this issue, Han Min-koo, South Korea’s Defense Minister was quoted as saying that “South Korea has a general idea and plan to use precision missile capabilities to target the enemy’s facilities in major areas as well as eliminating the enemy’s leadership” (Hancocks, 2016).
It is evident North Korea seems to be trying to sell the argument that they feel threatened. For example, it was reported on October 17th, 2016 that “”North Korea has warned that it may carry out further nuclear tests and says it is prepared to launch a preemptive strike on the United States if U.S. nuclear forces mobilize against it. “The U.S. has nuclear weapons off our coast, targeting our country, our capital and our Dear Leader, Kim Jong Un,” a top North Korean official, Lee Yong Pil, said in an exclusive interview with NBC News. “We will not step back as long as there’s a nuclear threat to us from the United States,” added Lee, who is director of the Foreign Ministry’s Institute for American Studies. “A preemptive nuclear strike is not something the U.S. has a monopoly on,” he said. “If we see that the U.S. would do it to us, we would do it first. … We have the technology”” (Neely, 2016).
Domestic Politics: Some have suggested that a nuclear weapons program may be necessary if there are power holders within the country, and that they want to ensure, for whatever reason, that such a program is developed (Sagan, 1996, in Hecker, 2010). However, North Korea has a very limited power base, and thus, it seems less the case that other actors besides the very top leader is able to have influence over such a program. What could be happening domestically though is that the North Korean leadership can be using the nuclear program as a way to tell the citizens that there is a serious outside threat (Hecker, 2010), and that this program will be what will protect them. And interesting, the latest leader in North Korea, Kim Jong-un, right before he tested the nuclear weapon in 2013, was making statements about US actions intentionally, and why he felt he needed to carry out this test in the context of US international relations and international affairs. Interestingly, “The North also often uses nationally important dates as an opportunity for a show of military strength. Friday [September 9th, 2016] [was]…its National Day, celebrating the founding of the current regime” (BBC, 2016). This is when the fifth nuclear weapons testing was believed to have taken place.
By using the arguments of threat, the North Korean leadership attempts to justify the horrible conditions internally. They often blame international actors for what is transpiring within North Korea, and continue to use propaganda to call on citizens to support the efforts of the state against international actors.
Norms: The third argument in Sagan’s categorization is the idea of a leader following norms. However, as Hecker (2010) argues, North Korean leaders have continued to go against international norms in their actions related to nuclear weapons. But this does not mean that North Korea has not used the program to build up its “power and prestige derived from the bomb as a diplomatic lever to strengthen its negotiating position” (Hecker, 2010: 52).
How has the International Community Responded to North Korea’s Nuclear Program?
The answer to this question has depended on which state one examines when looking at the international relations between North Korea and other actors. For example, the Soviet Union was a close ally to the North Korean regime throughout the Cold War. However, other states such as the United States and South Korea, due to security concerns, were much more worried about their nuclear program, particularly as more information became available regarding just how far the North Korean regime developed their nuclear capabilities.
For example, “American reconnaissance satellites picked up signs of the reactor construction in the early 1980s and the reprocessing facility in the late 1980s. It was not until 1989, when South Korea leaked American satellite data of the reprocessing facility, and the international community became aware of and concerned about North Korea’s indigenous nuclear program” (Hecker, 2010: 45). This development was particularly concerning for these states since “gas-graphite reactors are capable of producing weapons-grade plutonium while generating electrical power and heat” (Hecker, 2010: 45).
In 1992, North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il stated a willingness to work with the United States to halt all plutonium programs in exchange for aid. However, a decade later in 2002, the United States government had evidence that North Korea was working on uranium enrichment. This led to sanctions against North Korea, which in turn led North Korea to reactivate their overall nuclear program that they halted years earlier (Nikitin, 2013: 1). And while a number of states attempted to come to a diplomatic agreement with North Korea over its nuclear program in 2005, no terms were agreed upon. It was a year later that North Korea conducted its first nuclear test (Nikitin, 2013: 1). A year after that, various states came to an agreement with North Korea, which in turn, fell apart in 2009, right before the second nuclear test. Nikitin (2013) explains the breakdown of the 2007 agreement in 2009 when she writes:
On February 13, 2007, North Korea reached an agreement with other members of the Six-Party Talks to begin the initial phase (60 days) of implementing the Joint Statement from September 2005 on denuclearization. Phase 1 of this agreement included the shut-down of plutonium production at the Yongbyon nuclear complex in exchange for an initial heavy fuel oil shipment to North Korea. Phase 2 steps include the disablement of facilities at Yongbyon and a “complete and correct” declaration of DPRK nuclear activities, in exchange for delivery of heavy fuel oil and equivalent, and removal of the Trading with the Enemy Act (TWEA) and State Sponsors of Terrorism (SST) designations. The United States provided funding and technical assistance for disablement activities in North Korea until April 2009. Energy assistance was divided evenly between the Six Parties in Phase 2 of the agreement. North Korea submitted a declaration of its past plutonium production activities in June 2008 as agreed in an October 3, 2007, joint statement on “Second-Phase Actions.” Thereafter, President Bush removed North Korea from the TWEA list and notified Congress of his intent to lift the SST designation after North Korea agreed to verification provisions. North Korea did not accept initial U.S. verification proposals, and in September 2008, threatened to restart reprocessing plutonium. U.S. officials announced a bilateral agreement on verification in October 2008, and the Bush Administration removed North Korea from the SST List. The agreement was verbal, and North Korea then said that it had not agreed to sampling at nuclear sites, a key element in verifying past plutonium production. The Six Parties met in December 2008, but did not reach agreement on verification measures. Disablement activities at Yongbyon continued through April 2009, when North Korea expelled international monitors. North Korea then announced it would restart its reprocessing plant and boasted progress in uranium enrichment technology development and soon after tested as nuclear device” (1-2).
Furthermore, these talks focused on plutonium issues, and not on uranium, nor did they talk about the breakdown of nuclear warheads (Nikitin, 2013). Countries (independently) have continued to try to agree to a deal with North Korea regarding nuclear weapons (Nikitin, 2013), but have not been able to establish a prevailing agreement thus far (there was an agreement in early 2012 that would halt uranium enrichment at Yongbyon, which was broken months later) (Nikitin, 2013).
Then, the international community took additional actions against North Korea following its third nuclear test in early 2013. After it conducted this test, the United Nations agreed upon additional sanctions against North Korea. Furthermore, in September of 2013, China also stops sending any items to North Korea that could have any applicability to continuing the nuclear development program (BBC, 2014).
Following the fourth North Korean nuclear test, “China agreed to impose tougher UN sanctions” (BBC, 2016), although they have been less active in the assurance of the implementation of said sanctions (CNBC, 2016). Given the more recent fifth North Korean nuclear test, it has been suggested that additional sanctions–such as “blocking the export of fuel oil to North Korea” could be used by countries, although there are concerns that such an action could have serious implications for those living in North Korea (BBC, 2016).
It will be important to examine international response to the most recent North Korean nuclear weapons test, and whether additional sanctions will be levied on the state (and if so, what sort of sanctions will be placed on North Korea).
China and North Korea
Again, some have argued that as long as there is not a full agreement on world powers, that there will still be a difficulty in putting serious pressure on North Korea to abandon their nuclear activities. There is a belief that is specifically the case with regards to existing divisions between the US and China; again, while China has been more critical of North Korea and their nuclear weapons program, China is still very much worried about the implications of the missile defense system in South Korea (CNBC, 2016). Furthermore, many leaders in China seem to disagree with the United States and South Korea as to what the reasons for the nuclear tests are. To the United States, North Korea’s testing of nuclear weapons is why they and South Korea have to continue to build their military alliance and protection against a potential North Korean attack. However, this is quite different than how China views the North Korean situation. As Timothy Stafford notes (in Vinograd, 2016), “”Washington and Seoul take the view that the North’s provocations require more military exercises, whereas Beijng is of the view that it’s the military exercises that are encouraging [North Korea] to accelerate its nuclear program…”. China’s main party paper, the People’s Daily newspaper viewed the U.S. as the problem here, saying that the country is continuing to provide less towards positive international relations, “but its vigor for trouble-making has not diminished one iota.” The paper also said that America “needs to seriously look bad at how things have developed with the nuclear issues on the Korean peninsula, and really think about an effective resolution method and assume its responsibilities” (in Vinograd, 2016).
Furthermore, others believe that China is also concerned about any instability that could arise if there is any regime change or regime collapse in North Korea, and thus, might be a bit hesitant to significantly alter the status-quo (Griffiths, 2016). If North Korea fell, the concern about South Korea becoming more influential over the area is another worry to China (Kaplan, 2016). The worry is that America is using North Korea as a pretext to gain more influence in the region, and ultimately, to have more to restrict China (Vinograd, 2016). Thus, for China, the longer this goes, on, the more South Korea can be interdependent on China’s economy, which China hopes will pull them away from U.S. influence (Vinograd, 2016).
Lastly, the concerns are not limited to issues of blame, and questions about US behavior, motivations, and interests, particularly if regime change takes place. Related to this, if the regime in North Korea falls, China is worried about the possibility of millions of people leaving North Korea into China (Kaplan, 2016).
However, China has not just sit by idly with regards to the North Korean nuclear weapons issue. For example, according to a report, the Chinese government was looking into a company (Hongxiang Industrial Development Co.) may have sold North Korea materials that have aided to increase their nuclear weapons program (Associated Press, 2016).
Other Countries and North Korea
With regards to the fifth North Korean nuclear weapons test, Sung Kim, the United States Special Envoy for North Korea, was quoted as saying, “”North Korea continues to present a growing threat to the region, to our allies, to ourselves, and we will do everything possible to defend against that growing threat.” Sung Kim went on to add that “In addition to sanctions in the Security Council, both the US and Japan, together with [South Korea], will be looking at any unilateral measures as well as bilateral measures as well as possible trilateral cooperation” (BBC, 2016b). Speaking at the United Nations General Assembly, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said of North Korea’s latest nuclear weapons test that “There is no alternative but to say that the threat has now reached a dimension altogether different from what has transpired until now.” He also called for the United Nations to “indicate an unmistakable attitude to this threat” (Griffiths, 2016).
South Korea itself went much further, making some of its most direct military statements against North Korea in quite some time following the fifth North Korea nuclear weapons test. The South Korean regime criticized the action, and called the North Korean regime “fanatically reckless” (Hunt & Kwon, 2016). As reported in the BBC (2016), “A military source told the Yonhap news agency every part of Pyongyang “will be completely destroyed by ballistic missiles and high-explosives shells.”” With regards to this statement, “Pyongyang responded on Sunday by calling the threats of “meaningless sanctions… highly laughable” (BBC, 2016).
Other countries, many of whom are allies with South Korea, are taking their own measures as a response to the September 2016 North Korean nuclear test. For example, “Angola, for one, has suspended all commercial trade with Pyongyang, banning North Korean companies from operating there since the U.N. toughened sanctions in March, a South Korean foreign ministry official told Reuters recently” (Park & Munroe, 2016). Others have reduced the number of North Korean workers that they would accept after the calls by the United States; it is said that the roughly 50,000 North Koreans working abroad “generate between $1.2 billion and $2.3 billion annually for Pyongyang, according to a 2015 U.N. report” (Park & Munroe, 2016). Other countries, such as Singapore, that previously allowed North Koreans to travel to their state without Visas will now implement a Visa system (Park & Munroe, 2016).
Another approach has been countries not allowing North Korean ships into their registries, which has led the country to use other countries’ flags. However, the countries who were allowing this are changing their position. For example,
Landlocked Mongolia, which is among Pyongyang’s steadiest allies but also has close ties with Seoul, canceled the registrations of all 14 North Korean vessels flying its flag, according to a report it submitted to the U.N. in July, even though sanctions compelled it to act on just one of them.
Cambodia, once the most popular flag of convenience for North Korea, ended its registry scheme for all foreign ships in August, although it did not single out North Korea.
The flags of 69 North Korean ships, none of them on a U.N. blacklist, have been de-registered since the U.N. tightened sanctions in March, South Korea’s foreign minister said last month. The North’s merchant fleet is estimated by the U.N. at roughly 240 vessels (Park & Munroe, 2016).
There remain questions about whether sanctions on North Korea are effective. While some have argued that they are not (as the government has been able to still receive products elsewhere), South Korea maintains that if trade with North Korea continues, then the countries will not be able to capitalize on full trade relations with South Korea (Park & Munroe, 2016).
For many, the main country that could put real pressure on North Korea will be China (Park & Munroe, 2016). The question will remain whether China chooses to do so.
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