North Korea's Quest for Nuclear Weapons: New Historical Evidence

By Clemens, Walter C., Jr. | Journal of East Asian Studies, January-April 2010 | Go to article overview

North Korea's Quest for Nuclear Weapons: New Historical Evidence


Clemens, Walter C., Jr., Journal of East Asian Studies


Soviet and East European documents provide significant revelations about the interactions of North Korea and its allies. First, they show Pyongyang's longstanding interest in obtaining nuclear technology and probably nuclear weapons. Second, they reveal that North Korea's leadership consistently evaded commitments to allies on nuclear matters--particularly constraints on its nuclear ambitions or even the provision of information. Third, North Korea's words and deeds evoked substantial concerns in Moscow and other communist capitals that Pyongyang, if it obtained nuclear weapons, might use them to blackmail its partners or risk provoking a nuclear war. When aid from the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was not forthcoming, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea sought to bypass Moscow and obtain assistance from the Kremlin's East European clients and, when that proved fruitless, from Pakistan. The absence of international support reinforced the logic of self-reliance and "military first," pushing North Korea to pursue an independent line with respect to its nuclear weapons. These patterns cannot be extrapolated in a linear way, but they surely suggest reasons for caution by those hoping to engage North Korea in a grand bargain.

KEYWORDS: North Korea, nuclear technology, weapons, USSR, Eastern Europe, China, diplomacy

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North Korea exploded a nuclear device in 2006. How did it obtain the materials and technology?

The story began more than a half century earlier (Mazarr 1996; Oberdorfer 1997; Wampler 2003). Recently released documents detail the long history of North Korea's efforts to acquire nuclear weapons, in part through demands on its allies for assistance in nuclear science, nuclear power, and nuclear weapons. (1)

These efforts reflected a host of competing motivations on the part of Pyongyang. The Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) wanted a nuclear deterrent and doubted the reliability of Soviet and Chinese backing in times of crisis. Competition with South Korea no doubt played a role as well, not only militarily but in terms of prestige. North Korea also wanted to be treated by the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) on a par with East Europe's Communist regimes, and to be noticed and respected by the United States and other non-Communist governments.

Whatever Pyongyang's motives, several features of its diplomatic behavior are of more than historical interest. First, Pyongyang was aggressive and insistent in seeking foreign aid and assistance for nuclear purposes and continually complained about the failure of the USSR and other Communist regimes to do more for the DPRK. Second, the documents reveal that North Korea's leadership consistently evaded commitments to allies on nuclear matters, particularly constraints on its nuclear ambitions or even the provision of information. Third, North Korea's words and deeds evoked substantial concerns in Moscow and other Communist capitals. Communist allies feared that if Pyongyang obtained nuclear weapons, it might use them to blackmail its partners or take risks that could provoke a nuclear war.

When the USSR was not forthcoming, the DPRK sought to bypass Moscow and obtain aid from the Kremlin's East European clients. When this effort proved fruitless, Pyongyang looked to and obtained some help from Pakistan. But the nuclear device North Korea exploded in 2006 appears, like China's first nuclear test in 1964, to have been achieved with very limited help from outside--a tribute, Pyongyang could say, to self-reliance and putting the military first.

The documents show that North Korean diplomacy toward friends was nearly as combative as toward its supposed foes. Given that even Pyongyang's professed allies were subject to continual evasion and subterfuge, the record augurs poorly for the success of a nonproliferation regime that requires a substantial amount of trust. …

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