Why North Korea went nuclear

In July and August 2017, tests of intercontinental ballistic missiles by North Korea sparked inflammatory exchanges with the US – yet, as Nicola Leveringhaus explains, this is just the latest step in the isolationist communist state’s attempts to fulfil long-held nuclear ambitions

A soldier and workers are depicted gazing in admiration at North Korea’s first premier, Kim Il-sung, in a propaganda poster. The Kims’ dynastic personality cult shows no signs of diminishing. (Photo by Eric Lafforgue/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images)

This article first appeared in BBC History’s ‘World Histories, Issue 6’ bookazine


In early August 2017, an alarming exchange of threats and accusations began to fly between the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, widely known as North Korea) and the United States. Dominating the headlines were statements issued by North Korean supreme leader Kim Jong-un that his state was considering plans to strike the US Pacific territory of Guam – threats countered by belligerent warnings from US president Donald Trump that American forces were “locked and loaded”, ready to meet any aggressive act with “fire and fury”. The threat of nuclear war seemed closer than at any time since the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.

Yet this latest crisis is one that predates the big personalities of Kim and Trump. Certainly, some developments are new and worrisome: both leaders have been unrestrained in their rhetoric, and North Korea is advancing towards nuclear weapons capabilities that could bring the continental US within range. But these developments are not unexpected: indeed, the Kim regime’s love affair with the bomb began in the early days of the Cold War.

The roots of North Korea’s nuclear story began shortly before the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki on 6 and 9 August 1945, and the birth of the DPRK in 1948. In 1944, Japan, which had occupied Korea since 1910, selected Yongbyon in the north of the peninsula as a site for its atomic programme. Korean scientists even received basic nuclear training in Japanese universities. Following Japan’s surrender in the Second World War, the Soviet Union began to mine uranium deposits in North Korea for its own nuclear weapons programme. Foreign interest in nuclear energy, and the exploitation of nuclear-related resources and sites in North Korea, did not, it’s believed, go unnoticed by young Chinese Communist Party fighter – and, later, founding father of North Korea – Kim Il-sung. According to Alexandre Y Mansourov, a former Soviet diplomat to North Korea, Kim was impressed by the effect of the US atomic bombs in securing the quick surrender of Japan – an enemy he had fought for 13 years.

Nuclear launch

Unfortunately, there is no definitive historical document or official statement that pinpoints exactly when, after taking power, Kim Il-sung initiated a nuclear weapons programme. Academic theories vary. Some South Korean accounts suggest that it was as early as 1950, at the start of the Korean War between the communist-ruled North and American-supported South. This seems unlikely. Research conducted at the Soviet and Hungarian archives in 2006 by scholars affiliated to the Wilson Center in Washington DC suggested that, in the 1950s, Kim had been seriously interested in nuclear energy but did not initiate a weapons programme.

Kim’s interest in nuclear energy (as opposed to weapons) was driven primarily by national economic and energy needs, as well as a desire for the prestige attached to this new technology. North Korea initially turned to Moscow for help, and Kim soon sent scientists to the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research at Dubna in the Soviet Union. In 1956 and 1959, the two countries signed formal agreements, and in 1960 joint construction of the Yongbyon Nuclear Research Center began. However, as the Wilson Center research showed, repeated North Korean requests to the Soviets for a nuclear power plant were denied. One of the authors of the Wilson Center report, historian

Balázs Szalontai, argues that from 1960 until the early 1980s, the Soviet Union deliberately engaged in “technological obstruction” – in part because of fears that aiding the DPRK might indirectly assist China’s nuclear weapons programme, which Moscow had stopped supporting in 1960.

Undeterred by this obstruction, Kim turned to China, Pakistan and communist eastern European countries for help in developing nuclear energy. In 1968, Romania and North Korea published a joint communiqué criticising the Soviet Union for its refusal to provide nuclear power plants to both countries in that period, and in 1973 North Korea signed an agreement with Poland for technical and scientific co-operation in the field of nuclear technology.

North Korea also saw an opportunity in the break in relations between China and the Soviet Union (the ‘Sino-Soviet split’, sparked in part by Soviet ideological shifts away from Stalinist policies) in the early 1960s. Sergey Radchenko’s archival research for the Wilson Center suggests that China’s decision to go it alone on the nuclear front, having lost Soviet aid, was inspirational for Kim: China proved that nuclear self-reliance was technically possible. Other sources indicate that China might have been approached by North Korea for nuclear aid in 1961 and 1964, yet Beijing spurned these advances. All in all, Kim’s strategy largely failed: Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia and East Germany all rejected North Korea’s nuclear energy requests in 1981. Finally, as relations with the Soviet Union improved, a deal for a nuclear power plant was signed on 25 December 1985.

So much for nuclear power. North Korean enquiries about nuclear weapons are said to have started around 1962 or 1963, again in conversations with eastern European countries. This interest piqued again after China tested a nuclear weapon in 1964. Specific statements of interest in nuclear weapons by Kim Il-sung were first recorded somewhat later, from 1975. That year, North Korea hinted to South Korea that it might ask China for tactical nuclear weapons.

The following year, a much bolder claim was made: that North Korea had acquired nuclear-tipped missiles. And in 1977, during a visit to China, Kim Il-sung expressed an informal interest in nuclear weapons. These statements were largely issued for propaganda purposes, but nonetheless illustrate that by the 1960s and 1970s Kim Il-sung had nuclear ambitions well beyond peaceful uses for energy.

Eye on the bomb

Where and when did Kim’s earliest ambitions for the bomb emerge? The concept of nuclear deterrence became important early in his rule. During the Korean War (1950–53), US nuclear threats were a genuine concern for Chinese and Korean fighters on the ground. Former Soviet diplomat Mansourov highlights Kim’s shock after the Korean War on discovering the US had seriously contemplated using nuclear weapons on the battlefield.

North Korean concerns also extended to biological warfare. According to documents from the Chinese Foreign Ministry archives, allegations of biological weapons use during the Korean War cemented Sino-North Korean solidarity, and these concerns continued after the war. In 1958, the US decided to station tactical nuclear-armed missiles on the soil of its ally, South Korea, locating more than 700 there by the mid-1970s. North Korea simply could not counter this growing US stockpile of weapons of mass destruction. In response, during the 1960s and 1970s Pyongyang opted to develop chemical weapons as a substitute for a nuclear bomb.

So North Korean insecurity was a major driver for its early nuclear ambitions. Though it had signed security treaties with both the Chinese and Soviets in 1961, neither offered explicit guarantees for defence. Crucially, these treaties fell far short of nuclear umbrella arrangements offered elsewhere by the United States to South Korea and Japan. And Kim no longer trusted the Soviet Union on nuclear matters. Following the 1962

Cuban Missile Crisis, Kim publicly agreed with China’s leader Mao Zedong that the Soviet Union had capitulated to the Americans. In addition, Moscow’s support for the 1963 Limited Test Ban Treaty [prohibiting overground nuclear tests] was interpreted as an attempt to deny others the opportunity to pursue the bomb. Like China, North Korea labelled the superpowers as nuclear bullies, bent on freezing the status quo to their exclusive advantage. Inevitably, it lambasted the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which came into force in 1968, choosing not to join until 1985, once relations with the Soviet Union had improved.

Nuclear independence

By the mid to late 1970s, North Korea’s nuclear ambitions had turned inward, reflecting the predominant national ideology of Juche (roughly: ‘self-reliance’), and greater independence even from communist-bloc countries. Nuclear facilities were built to develop a weapons programme not reliant on Soviet aid. A radioisotope production laboratory became operational in 1977, and a graphite-moderated reactor was also built. In 1981 and 1989, Kim made two known high-level visits to Yongbyon, now nicknamed the ‘Furniture Factory’ as a playful cover for the site.

A number of domestic and regional developments accelerated this drive in North Korea’s nuclear ambitions. The first – and, perhaps, most significant – was South Korea’s decision to develop a nuclear weapons programme. US president Richard Nixon’s announcement of the Guam doctrine in 1969 – which called for a reduced US military presence in Asia – sparked real concern of abandonment in South Korea. In response, around 1973–5, South Korean president Park Chung-hee decided to pursue the bomb. For Kim, it would be unthinkable for the north to not have nuclear weapons when the south was pushing ahead; it was problematic enough from a prestige perspective that the north lagged behind the south on nuclear energy. South Korea had joined the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in 1957, and by 1959 had established an office for nuclear energy. Security and prestige concerns thus reared their heads again in underpinning North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.

A second development was domestic: in the 1970s, leadership succession was on Kim’s mind. Nuclear weapons had come to be intertwined not just with North Korean national identity but also, more importantly, regime identity. Kim Il-sung’s decision to make succession a family affair was criticised by some socialist voices (though not by China). In 1980, Kim Il-sung publicly declared that his son, Kim Jong-il, would be his successor as supreme leader of North Korea. Kim Il-sung deemed that continuity with the nuclear programme was a crucial corollary of this succession. Regime legitimacy was inextricably tied up with a Juche bomb.

A third development was that during the 1980s major political and economic reforms were afoot in China, under Deng Xiaoping, and in the Soviet Union under Mikhail Gorbachev. These leaders offered a more liberal economic and political agenda, with domestic and global implications. Kim Il-sung saw opportunities for closer economic ties with both countries. North Korea also began to join a variety of nuclear institutions: the IAEA in 1974, the NPT on 12 December 1985, and the Biological Weapons Convention on 13 March 1987. These diplomatic efforts could be interpreted cynically as a distraction to camouflage the North Korea’s covert nuclear weapons programme. But they were perhaps more than this. Membership of the IAEA afforded North Korea important access to nuclear knowledge.

These decisions possibly also reflected a new turn in North Korea’s nuclear ambitions, away from nuclear energy and nuclear weapons, towards diplomacy and a desire to be part of global nuclear politics. Certainly, through participation North Korea sought international prestige and attention at a time when it was battling for representation at the United Nations.

Under Kim Il-sung, the regime’s nuclear ambitions evolved significantly. Initially, in the 1950s, driven by economic needs and a desire for prestige, ambitions focused on peaceful nuclear energy. In the 1960s and 1970s this spilled over into a secondary, and more problematic, nuclear ambition: the development of a bomb. This was determined by long-standing security concerns, as well as the ever-present need for prestige. A third ambition emerged in the 1970s and 1980s: engagement in international nuclear diplomacy.

All three forms of nuclear ambition remain relevant in North Korea today. Much of what followed in the 1990s and 2000s is well documented. In 1994, following the death of Kim Il-sung, his son Kim Jong-il assumed power and continued the country’s nuclear weapons programme with perhaps even more fervour and nuclear brinkmanship. The late 1990s and 2000s witnessed numerous missile and nuclear weapons tests as well as various attempts at negotiations.

In 2003, North Korea withdrew from the NPT. Today, its leader – Kim Jong-il’s son Kim Jong-un, the former having died in 2011 – remains wedded to the bomb, for largely the same reasons as those of his grandfather: security, prestige and economics. The lesson? In the nuclear age, ambitions may be timeless.

Nicola Leveringhaus is lecturer in war studies (East Asian security and international relations) at King’s College London.

North Korea: in brief

In 1910 the Korean peninsula was annexed by Japan, which occupied Korea until the end of the Second World War and invaded Manchuria in 1931. Among Chinese Communist guerrillas who launched attacks against Japanese occupation in the 1930s was a division led by Kim Il-sung (born Kim So˘ng-ju in 1912), a young Korean-born man who grew up in Manchuria and who became a major in the Soviet Red Army during the Second World War.

The Soviet Union declared war on Japan on 8 August 1945, and within a month had invaded Korea and entered Pyongyang; the United States occupied the peninsula south of the 38th parallel, and the country was divided in preparation for planned independence. Kim Il-sung was installed by the Soviets as leader of the North Korean Communist Party, and during 1946 the north – ruled by People’s Committees and effectively controlled by Kim and the Soviets – was transformed along Stalinist lines.

Promised support from newly Communist-ruled China, Kim’s North Korea invaded the south in 1950, rapidly taking almost the whole peninsula. In response, a UN-backed American force pushed back the North Korean troops which, once China entered the fray in November, succeeded in once more taking control of the north – although the area had been devastated. The war ended in stalemate in 1953, with the border between north and south remaining roughly the 38th parallel. Despite this, Kim was able to consolidate power, purging opponents and building an all-encompassing personality cult. He became known as the ‘Great Leader’ and, after Chinese withdrawal in 1958, imposed his philosophy of Juche (Self-reliance), effectively isolating the country from foreign trade and causing huge economic difficulties and frequent widespread famines.


Kim Il-sung died in 1994, succeeded as leader of the DPRK by his oldest son Kim Jong-il. He continued his father’s isolationist policies and maintained the cult of personality, becoming known as the ‘Dear Leader’. Kim Jong-il died in 2011, and was succeeded by his own son Kim Jong-un, who ramped up the nuclear programme.

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