Country Report: North Korea

North Korea withdrew from the NPT to became a nuclear weapon state in 2006. BASIC monitors North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile capability developments and multilateral political talks regarding the country’s nuclear program in its Getting to Zero updates. Read the GTZ update summaries in reverse chronological order below.

February 2013

On February 13, North Korea conducts its third nuclear test detonation. The test might advance the country’s development of nuclear weapons. 

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December 2012

North Korea successfully launches a long-range rocket-reportedly to put a weather satellite in orbit-on December 11. The launch reinforces concerns that the country will eventually develop a nuclear-tipped missile.

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August 2012

No further progress was reported over the North Korea nuclear stand-off, although North Korean and U.S. officials met unofficially during the first half of July to discuss the possibility of reviving the February 29th food aid deal. The deal was cancelled in April after North Korea attempted to launch a satellite, which violated Pyongyang’s promise to halt work on its nuclear and missile programs as part of the arrangement.

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June 2012

Hopes for progress on the North Korean nuclear impasse have all but disintegrated in recent months, despite one promising diplomatic step at the end of February. The Director General of the IAEA, Yukiya Amano, said on June 4 that his recent communications with Pyongyang indicate no prospect for an Agency mission.

More suspicions about North Korea’s military and nuclear programs were raised when, in commemoration of the 100th anniversary of North Korea’s founder Kim Il-Sung, the DPRK attempted to field an observation satellite supposedly intended to aid in crop production and monitor natural resources. The regime publicly acknowledged that the rocket failed shortly after take-off on April 13 – the third failed attempt by North Korea to launch a satellite, a signal that North Korea is proceeding much slower with its ballistic missile capabilities than previously expected. The Unha-3 rocket is believed to be a derivative of the Taepodong-2 ballistic missile.

Similarly, the launch cost North Korea the February 29th U.S.-bilateral deal, a proposed exchange of 240,000 tonnes of food for its monitored shutdown of atomic activities at Yongbyon and halts on missile and nuclear tests. The U.N. Security Council (UNSC) moved quickly to condemn the launch and threatened to enact further punitive measures if Pyongyang continues to violate its obligations. The DPRK denies that the launch violated the bilateral food agreement or UNSC resolution 1695, suspending all ballistic missile activity. In response to the U.S. withdrawal from the bilateral agreement, North Korea has retracted its invitation to the U.N. nuclear monitor to oversee and confirm the halt of atomic activities at Yongbyon.

North Korea showed signs of preparing a third nuclear detonation. South Korean officials revealed satellite photos suggesting new tunnelling in April at North Korea’s atomic test site, Punggye-ri. The UNSC threatened further punitive measures, and it is widely believed that China increased its pressure on the DPRK to abstain. North Korea has more recently issued a statement, saying that it had no short-term plans to conduct a nuclear test.

Commercial satellite imagery, taken on April 30, reveals that North Korea appears close to completing the reactor containment building of its experimental light-water reactor in Yongbyon which could become operational within one to two years, according to 38 North. Other satellite imagery shows construction on a new missile facility at Musudan-ri and a new Sohae Satellite Launching Station.

As part of the celebration honoring its founding father, the DPRK continued festivities with a large military parade, including an eight-axle road-mobile missile launch platform showing similarities to a Chinese mobile launch vehicle. Beijing would be in direct violation of UNSC resolutions 1718 (2006) and 1874 (2009) if it had supplied such technology, though it could have been re-exported through a third party country.

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February 2012

The death of Kim Jong-Il on December 17 delayed scheduled U.S.-North Korea bilateral talks in Beijing, and brought uncertainty to the future of the six-party nuclear talks. Some believe Kim Jong-Un could be more open to negotiations than his father, whilst others fear his lack of domestic credibility will prevent any early negotiations. He may even take military action to boost his credibility, as his father did by sinking the Cheonan and shelling Yeonpyeong Island in 2010. North Korea has already staged several short-range missile tests since Kim Jong-Il’s death.

In an interview with Japan’s NHK television network, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said that it was “absolutely realistic” that the six-party talks could resume by this summer. The talks have been stalled since April 2009, shortly before North Korea’s second nuclear test. U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Kurt Campbell stated on February 1 that the United States is conditionally ready to resume talks with Pyongyang, conditions thought to include ceasing the enrichment of uranium.

U.S. lawmakers raised concerns based on intelligence that North Korea was developing a road-mobile ICBM that could strike the United States. Easily hidden and quickly prepared for launch, this could be significant. However, experts questioned whether the new development was credible, noting that North Korean air frames and rocket designs are simply too heavy and efficient to deliver a payload over a long distance. North Korea has also not yet successfully tested an ICBM.

The January 31 U.S. Intelligence Community’s (IC) threat assessment warns of future North Korean nuclear exports (p. 6).North Korea is the least secure country with nuclear materials, according to the Nuclear Threat Initiative’s (NTI) Nuclear Materials Security Index.The others in the bottom five were: Pakistan, Iran, Vietnam and India. The overall score took into account quantities and sites, security and control measures, global norms, domestic commitments and capacity, and societal factors.

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November 2011

Direct talks between U.S. and North Korean officials in Geneva at the end of October were described as “useful” by special U.S. envoy Clifford Hart. It was only the second such instance of dialogue since the six-party talks collapsed in 2009 when North Korea backed out, following the imposition of U.N. sanctions in response to its second nuclear test.

U.S. officials indicated that the goal of the “exploratory” discussions was to lower tensions on the Korean Peninsula in an attempt to avoid any “miscalculations” by Pyongyang. Another U.S. goal has been to help restart engagement between South and North Korea. However, expectations are low for these talks to jump-start the six-party process, which included the United States, North Korea, Russia, China, South Korea, and Japan. While North Korean leader Kim Jong-il has stated that he wishes to see nuclear negotiations recommence without preconditions, but the United States and South Korea have insisted that Pyongyang halt nuclear operations and pledge not to attack the South before the six-party talks can resume. 

On a week-long tour of Asia, U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta expressed skepticism about the possibilities for success. He called on North Korea to halt its nuclear activities. “Denuclearization means they have to stop testing, they have to stop developing weapons, they have to stop enriching in violation of international rules and requirements, and they have to allow the IAEA to go in and inspect those facilities,” he said. President Barack Obama visited the region in mid-November, and during his address to the Australian Parliament warned Pyongyang that it would face repercussions if it failed to reverse its current nuclear efforts.

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 July 2011

U.S. Amb. Stephen Bosworth will meet with North Korean Vice Foreign Minister Kim Kye Gwan in New York on July 28 and 29. The announcement comes shortly after the ASEAN Regional Forum, a gathering of 27 countries from the Asia-Pacific zone, held its 18th annual meeting in Indonesia July 16 – 23. Diplomats from North and South Korea held an informal closed-door meeting that could pave the way to higher-level bilateral talks. North Korean top nuclear envoy, Ri Yong Ho, said both sides agreed to “joint efforts to reopen the six-party talks as soon as possible”. North Korea stands to gain aid and other concessions if it agrees to resume negotiations. Despite the recent movement on talks with North Korea, the United States and South Korea maintain a tough posture toward North Korea, following an expansion of U.S. sanctions against North Korea and talks between U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her South Korean counterpart, Kim Sung-hwan, in June. The countries maintain that inter-Korean dialogue is a prerequisite for the resumption of the Six Party Talks that have stalled since 2009. Although South Korean officials have said they would be willing to address last year’s deadly border incidents at another meeting separate from the nuclear talks, North Korea has since June shown reluctance to engage with Lee Myung-Bak’s administration.

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 May 2011

South Korea’s President Lee Myung-Bak had called on North Korea to renounce nuclear weapons, and in return, Pyongyang would have a seat at the next Nuclear Security Summit, which will take place in Seoul in 2012. But North Korea quickly rejected the offer and conveyed intentions to continue its nuclear program. On May 15, U.S. special envoy Stephen Bosworth began a visit to South Korea for talks on North Korea’s nuclear program and also on food aid to the country.

Meanwhile, Reuters has released excerpts from a U.N. panel report on North Korean sanctions. The panel alleges that North Korea and Iran have been exchanging ballistic missile technology in violation of international sanctions. However, the panel concluded that the sanctions have made North Korea’s nuclear program and missile activities more difficult to pursue.

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 March 2011

News came to light in mid-February of work underway on a second launch facility in Dongchang-ri, near the northwest border with China, but there was no clear indication of actual plans for missile testing. Speculation also rose of an imminent third nuclear test, shortly following the revelation that new tunnels were being dug in the underground mines at Punggye-ri, where it had held its two nuclear tests so far. The U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency warned that North Korea may have succeeded in miniaturizing nuclear warheads to a sufficient extent that they could be mounted on missiles and aircraft. The exact number is unknown, but is believed to be “several.”

Reflecting widespread fears, U.S. Admiral Robert Willard, commander in the Pacific, suggested that the North might even attack again. He warned that South Korean tolerance will be very low. Verbal exchanges between the two countries have been more heated and the South recently refused the North’s offer of unconditional talks on its uranium enrichment operation, asserting that the proposal lacked substance. The South reiterated their refusal a couple of days later, suggesting that the talks offer was “far short of acceptable.” Some politicians even called for the return of U.S. tactical nuclear missiles to South Korea as a deterrent against the North, but the South Korean Defense Minister said there would be no such action.

Despite Chinese objections, the United Nations is looking into recommendations on tightening sanctions, which include, (as mentioned by Reuters): “proposals on tightening controls in transit countries for North Korean arms shipments, tougher air cargo measures, widening definitions of banned goods and possible addition of names to lists of sanctioned firms and persons.”

North Korea has recently contacted the Russians and suggested that they are ready to discuss their enrichment program. Russia in turn has been “very critical” of the North Korean nuclear program, according to Seoul’s ambassador to Moscow, but may be cautious in its support for stronger measures for fear of harming its relationship with China. The United States, meanwhile, has refused the offer of direct military talks with North Korea in January and is instead working with South Korea to secure a U.N. Security Council statement to condemn North Korea’s nuclear program.

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February 2011

Negotiations between North and South Korean militaries broke down on February 9, further dimming hopes for reconvening international talks over the North’s nuclear program. The meeting was the first full attempt to restart dialogue after North Korea launched a fatal attack on Yeonpyeong Island last November.

The United States had warned China in December that its failure to pressure Pyongyang would result in the redeploying of certain U.S. forces in the East Asian theater. Although details were not forthcoming, President Barack Obama apparently discussed the issue with Chinese President Hu Jintao during his visit to Washington, DC in January. The leaders issued a joint statement acknowledging North Korea’s uranium enrichment facility and called for a denuclearization of the Peninsula. China has since warned the United States that it will not support further sanctions against North Korea and is advocating for pressure on Pyongyang to be applied only through the continuation of talks.

On February 11, Pyongyang sent out a special order to its embassies to request food aid from foreign governments– a move which increases speculation over the likelihood that North Korea is on the verge of collapse. South Korea’s National Security Advisor, Chun Yung-Woo, now believes that continued North Korean arms spending could ultimately result in the regime’s self-destruction. He notes that the major cash flows into North Korea have all been cut and that the regime has no hope of resolving its economic problems, which he called “existential.” South Korea’s government-run think tank, the Korea Institute of Defense Analyses, published a report suggesting that North Korea’s military spending was much higher than the official figure of $570 million for 2009. South Korean analysts calculated that the North spent $8.77 billion in 2009, which represents a third of its annual income.

U.S. Admiral Michael Mullen has asserted that North Korea will be able to develop a nuclear-capable ICBM within the next five to ten years. In testimony submitted to the U.S. House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said that he suspects North Korea has more than the one uranium enrichment facility that was publicly revealed last November.

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 December 2010

Tensions around the Korean Peninsula were expected to intensify again as South Korea was about to go ahead with a round of previously-announced major military exercises that would include live fire. The exercises were intended to serve as a show of force against the North in retribution for its shelling of Yeonpyeong island in which several South Koreans were killed in November.

Shortly before the exercises, on December 20, North Korea had announced that it would welcome back inspectors for the purpose of monitoring its nuclear program, according to Bill Richardson (New Mexico’s Governor, and also Energy Secretary during the Clinton Administration) who was serving as an unofficial envoy during his visit to Pyongyang. The apparent change of policy came after a two month-period of escalating tensions, and also revelations from a U.S. scientist, Dr. Siegfried S. Hecker, who inspected a new enrichment facility at Yongbyon in November and was surprised by the advancement of the North’s uranium enrichment program.

Adm. Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff for the United States, admonished China for not condemning the North Korean barrage on the South Korean island earlier in the month. “China has enormous influence over the North, and therefore they have a unique responsibility…Now is the time for Beijing to step up to that responsibility and guide the North, and indeed the whole region, to a better future”, said the Admiral. A senior U.S. official also accused China of enabling North Korean enrichment of uranium, further straining the relationship between the two nations over the Korean Peninsula. A day later, China did publicly challenge North Korea to keep its offer to let inspectors return to view its nuclear program. On a related note, diplomatic cables that have come out as a result of Wikileaks indicated that China would be willing to “abandon” North Korea.

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 November 2010

It has been reported that North Korea is taking further steps to enhance nuclear weapon capabilities. According to the report released by the Institute for Science and International Security on October 8, North Korea is processing highly enriched uranium and resumed the construction of nuclear facilities at Yongbyon in order to produce plutonium. A senior presidential aide of South Korea pointed out that the nuclear program in the North is “evolving at a very fast pace” and reaching a “very alarming” level. On October 20, United States and South Korean intelligence detected movements of personnel and vehicles which suggest another possible nuclear test. South Korean Unification Minister, Hyun In-Taek, stated that the government “is watching closely because possibilities cannot be completely ruled out,” but rejected the likelihood of an immediate nuclear test. On October 31, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told China that Washington expects Beijing to press North Korea not to take “provocative steps” against South Korea.

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 October 2010

The Six-Party Talks still remained in limbo, but North Korean leaders expressed an interest in coming back to the table after their country was able to avoid receiving the direct blame in a U.N. Security Council decision delivered over the summer on the attack of a South Korean corvette, which killed 46 South Korean sailors back in March. South Korea, Japan and the United States had wanted North Korea to admit responsibility for the attack.

Wu Dawei, China’s special envoy, visited Seoul and Pyongyang at the end of August to discuss the resumption of the talks. North Korean leader Kim Jong-il visited Chinese President Hu Jintao in China and said that North Korea wants to return to the Six Party framework. A week later, the United States sent a delegation to Seoul, Tokyo and Beijing. South Korea also dispatched its top nuclear negotiator to the United States. Against the backdrop of this diplomatic shuttling, the United States announced new sanctions against North Korea, which are intended to freeze the assets of individuals and organizations involved in North Korea’s weapons industry in particular and also against those involved in criminal activities.

In the U.N. General Assembly on September 29, North Korean Vice Foreign Minister, Pak Kil-yon, claimed that the nuclear weapons in North Korea are for self-defense, “As long as the U.S. nuclear aircraft carriers sail around the seas of our country, our nuclear deterrence can never be abandoned but should be strengthened further.” However, Minister Kim added that North Korea is willing to join “the international efforts for nuclear non-proliferation and safe management of nuclear material on an equal footing with other nuclear weapon states.”

Since then, South Korea has said that North Korea’s program has reached an “alarming level” because it suspected that the country now has the ability to make more compact nuclear warheads, even though there has been no proof that North Korea has manufactured a nuclear weapon. North Korea was also restoring its nuclear facilities at Yongbyon, according to South Korea’s Defense Ministry. The Institute for Science and International Security obtained satellite imagery of the area and independently confirmed that “new construction or excavation activity” appeared to be taking place as of the end of September. Although there was no firm indication that the activity was for the rebuilding of the cooling tower and that the excavation appeared to be too extensive for this purpose, the developments in this area warranted continued monitoring, according to the Institute’s analysis.

On September 28, Kim Jung-il appointed his third son, Kim Jon-un, as a four-star general, which indicates a step toward eventual succession. Speculation surrounding Kim’s successor has increased during the past two years because of his health problems.

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 July 2010

Escalating tensions around the Korean peninsula dimmed prospects for moving ahead with the Six Party Talks on North Korea’s nuclear program. An international investigation into the sinking of a South Korean warship that had occurred on March 26 laid the blame squarely on a North Korean torpedo attack. The attack is considered by Seoul and Washington to be a violation of the armistice established at the end of the 1950-53 Korean War. Pyongyang’s refusal to accept responsibility for the incident left little room for focusing on negotiations intended to encourage more transparency and halt North Korea’s nuclear efforts. Pyongyang said it would hold direct military talks with Seoul about the fatal sinking that killed 46 sailors, if the international armistice commission does not become involved. Reuters obtained a letter dated June 29, sent from North Korean to the United Nations, requesting direct talks with South Korea for the purpose of reinvestigating the incident.

The RevCon’s Final Document and the G8 Summit’s Final Communiqué called on North Korea to rejoin the Six Party Talks, and ultimately rejoin the NPT as a non-nuclear weapon state. The G8 also “deplored” the torpedo attack. Pyongyang responded by warning that it would resort to escalating the conflict if it were punished for the incident, and through its official KCNA news agency blamed the United States for rising tensions around the Korean peninsula and claimed that the situation “underscores the need for the DPRK [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] to bolster its nuclear deterrent in a newly developed way to cope with the US persistent hostile policy toward the DPRK and military threat toward it.” North Korea left the NPT in 2003 and while it may have enough fissile material for up to ten weapons, little is known about its holdings or even whether it has been able to successfully weaponize. North Korea was also facing fresh accusations of assisting Myanmar (Burma) in developing a nuclear weapons program, an allegation which both countries have denied.

Radiation levels near the North and South Korean borders were reported to be eight times higher than usual on May 15. Media coverage included consideration of whether the increased levels were due to a possible third nuclear explosive test by North Korea, or an accident in the region, while additional speculation linked the concentration to a dubious claim made by North Korea on May 12 that it had mastered the technology for creating a nuclear fusion reaction. However, the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO) had not detected any tremors that would be indicative of a nuclear test, a conclusion further supported by South Korea’s Science Ministry. Other analysis suggested that the radiation could have come from other countries, including Japan, which restarted a breeder reactor on May 6.

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 April 2010

Update on stalled Six-Party Talks

Recent speculation that North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il might visit China near the end of April has raised hopes for the resumption of the Six-Party Talks, which are intended to end his country’s nuclear program. Five of the six members of the six-nation nuclear negotiation group have agreed to attend a preparatory meeting to restart the talks. The full group includes China, Japan, North and South Korea, Russia, and the United States, but North Korea pulled out in April 2009 and later conducted a nuclear test.

So far, North Korea has refused to rejoin the talks until it is granted peace treaty discussions with the United States and U.N. Security Council sanctions are removed. The United States has said that it will hold meetings on North Korean nuclear disarmament at the preparatory talks but will only participate in bilateral talks with Pyongyang on the condition that they will lead directly to North Korea’s return to the multilateral discussions. Earlier this month, however, China suggested holding additional meetings between the United States and North Korea, followed by a six-nation preliminary discussion before returning to the Six-Party Talks. While North Korea has not responded to this offer, Japan’s Yomiuri Shimbun claims that the United States has accepted China’s plan to reengage North Korea.

Nevertheless, North Korean officials were voicing their discontent on 5 April – warning that because the nuclear talks have stalled, any remaining bodies of U.S. soldiers from the Korean War would be “washed [away] and lost” and threatening to inhibit a program that searches for those still missing. In addition, Pyongyang recently sentenced Aijalon Mahli Gomes, an American who had entered North Korean territory, to eight years of hard labor. The sentence raised speculation that North Korea would release him if and when the Six Party Talks resume.

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