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North Korean Security Issues

North Korea (officially the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, or DPRK) has been a security concern in recent years because of its development programs for ballistic missiles and nuclear warheads.

Nuclear and Missile Developments

North Korea is believed to have produced enough separated plutonium for eight to ten nuclear weapons. It has also conducted two underground nuclear tests. The first, in October 2006, had a very low yield, which many experts believe indicated that the test was unsuccessful. The second test, in May 2009, had a larger yield, suggesting that it was largely successful. Despite this, North Korea is not believed to have developed a nuclear warhead that could be delivered by ballistic missile.

North Korea began selling short range missiles modeled on the Soviet SCUD-B missile twenty years ago. In the 1990s it began to test and later field a mobile missile, called the Nodong in the west, that is believed to have a range of 1,000 to 1,300 kilometers while carrying a 700 to 1,000-kilogram payload. This range would allow these missiles to reach targets in Japan.

In August 1998, North Korea launched a three-stage missile based on the Nodong, which was a failed attempt to place a small satellite into orbit. In April 2009, North Korea launched a rocket that was much larger and more powerful than any it had previously tested, again in a failed attempt to place its first satellite into orbit. This launched raised alarms because the technology used to launch a satellite-bearing rocket into space can also be used to launch a long-range ballistic missile carrying a nuclear warhead. (For more information about the April 2009 launch, click here.)

Diplomatic Efforts

Negotiations between the United States and North Korea in the early 1990s led to the Agreed Framework, which shut down North Korea’s plutonium production reactor at Yongbyon and placed the reactor and the spent fuel produced in it under international inspectors. In 1998, North Korea’s apparent interest in engagement with the United States led it to declare and observe a moratorium on missile flight tests. Diplomatic efforts on both the nuclear and missile issues appeared to be moving ahead during the late years of the Clinton administration.

When the Bush administration took office, it suspended engagement and took a much harder line with North Korea. It eventually recast diplomatic efforts from bilateral talks to six-party talks that also included Russia, China, South Korea, and Japan. By the end of the Bush administration, North Korea had ended its missile flight test moratorium and resumed flight testing, and had thrown out international inspectors, had reprocessed the spent fuel from the Yongbyon reactor and increased its stockpile of separated plutonium from enough for an estimated to one to two nuclear weapons to eight to ten weapons, had conducted an underground nuclear test, and had pulled out of the six-party talks.

In 2009, following its attempted satellite launch, its second nuclear test, and an apparent stroke by North Korean leader Kim Jong Il, North Korea began to take actions that appear to show interest in international engagement and a return to the bargaining table.

UCS has been part of an independent effort to examine and suggest ideas to support a renewed diplomatic approach aimed at engaging North Korea and ending its nuclear and missile programs. The final report of the project and UCS’s background paper on North Korea’s missile program is available here.

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