How North Korea got its nuclear weapons in the first place


After weeks of uncertainty, the U.S. is set to meet with North Korea Tuesday in a historic summit to address the rogue nation’s ongoing nuclear program.

The upcoming negotiations between President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un come amid a history of escalating nuclear rhetoric between the two countries. Trump promised to respond to North Korea’s nuclear threats with “fire and fury,” while Kim — whom Trump once dubbed “Little Rocket Man” — has warned of a “nuclear button” in his office at all times as well as threatened missile strikes on the U.S. territory of Guam and the “heart of the U.S.”

Conflict over North Korea’s nuclear program is nothing new. Former President George W. Bush in 2002 labeled the country part of an “axis of evil” over its desire for weapons of mass destruction, and the United Nations has frequently condemned the country’s nuclear program and imposed sanctions in response to nuclear and long-range missile tests that have been ongoing since 2006.

But how did this isolated, cash-strapped nation even acquire nuclear weapons in the first place? The country’s nuclear program had been decades in the making prior to announcing it had nuclear weapons in April 2003. Its ambitions date back to the Korean War — and in developing its nuclear program, the Asian nation has had some outside help.

Korean War beginnings

North Korea’s relationship with nuclear weapons can be traced back to the Korean War, when the U.S. — which had used the atomic bomb in Japan just a few years earlier — mulled making use of its nuclear weapons once again. President Harry Truman deployed B-29 bombers, which are capable of delivering nuclear bombs, as a sign that the U.S. was prepared and ready to use the weapons if necessary. He also said during a press conference that the U.S. was prepared to use nuclear force if necessary to win the war. Truman’s successor, Dwight D. Eisenhower, also considered, but ultimately rejected, using nuclear weapons in Korea.


Though no nuclear weapons were ultimately used in the Korean War, the U.S.’ actions had an effect on North Korea, and its leaders’ desire to defend the country against a perceived nuclear threat. Under the regime of leader Kim Il-sung, North Korea began reestablishing chemical defense units even before the end of the Korean War, according to the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies. In the war’s immediate aftermath, the country also established an Atomic Weapons Training Center to train its military units to conduct operations on an “atomic” battlefield.

Soviet assistance

Another conflict that had a huge impact on North Korea’s nuclear ambitions was the Cold War, as the Soviet Union provided help to ally North Korea as the country developed its own nuclear energy program. In the wake of the Korean War, North Korea expanded a program that sent citizens to the Soviet Union to be trained as scientists and engineers, and the two countries signed nuclear cooperation agreements. North Korea was ultimately able to install its own atomic energy research centers in the early 1960s as well as its first nuclear reactor. The USSR also equipped North Korea with some equipment as well as advanced defensive nuclear, biological and chemical training.

Throughout the 1970s and ‘80s, tension simmered between Moscow and Pyongyang as North Korea rejected attempts by the international community to control its nuclear ambitions. North Korea embarked on the second phase of its nuclear program, which included the construction of new reactors, a radiochemical separation plant and research centers that put North Korea on its way to producing nuclear missile prototypes. In 1985, the Soviets committed to helping North Korea construct a nuclear power plant after the North Korea signed the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons.

North Korea lost its key ally after the fall of the Soviet Union, as President Boris Yeltsin and the Russian government that took power announced it no would no longer honor the country’s 1961 treaty of mutual defense and cooperation with North Korea.

Yet North Korea still benefitted from the Soviet’s nuclear program. According to Time magazine, experts believe that North Korea would not have been able to create its nuclear arsenal without Russian and Ukranian technology, and the country has worked to acquire Soviet-era missile technology since 1991. As a result, North Korean missiles have often emulated Soviet-era missiles; the country’s Hwasong-15 missile, which was tested in November 2017, is believed to be based on Soviet designs dating back to the mid-1960s.

It is also believed that North Korea made efforts to recruit former Soviet missile experts, though the Kremlin agreed to prohibit Russian scientists from working on the North Korean program after 60 Russian recruits set to aid North Korea’s program were detained at a Moscow airport in 1992. Although Time noted it is difficult to prove whether Ukranian scientists went to work in North Korea after the country agreed to give up its Soviet-supplied weapons in 1994, missile designer Yuri Solomonov did note that Russian scientists worked on the North Korean nuclear program in the 1990s.

North Korea may potentially still be receiving help from Russia under current President Vladimir Putin, who ushered a treaty of friendship and cooperation between Russia and North Korea soon after taking office in 2000. The CIA reported the two countries signed a Defense Industry Cooperation Agreement in April 2001, which paved the way for arms sales and transfers to North Korea. The country has denied supporting North Korea’s missile program.

There is also speculation over whether Ukraine is currently a source of North Korea’s arms. A report released in August 2017 suggested North Korea’s missiles could be traced back to a Ukranian factory, though the country denied having a connection to North Korea’s missile program. In response to the report, Ukraine released surveillance footage to CNN showing a sting operation on North Korean spies attempting to gain nuclear information in 2011.

Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP

Other foreign influences

But Moscow and Kiev haven’t been the only one to allegedly lend their assistance to North Korea’s nuclear program. North Korea’s other major ally, China, has also provided a range of assistance. According to PBS, it is believed that China contributed nuclear expertise and technology that has been incorporated into several of North Korea’s missiles. At the same time, North Korean firms in China were used to procure materials for its nuclear program as of 2001, according to the CIA.

Egypt has also been a player in North Korea’s nuclear history; the country provided North Korea with Soviet-supplied Scud missiles in the 1970s, which North Korea reverse engineered with help from China and Iran. And Pakistan provided military equipment and technical information that allowed North Korea to enrich uranium in exchange for $3 million in payments, documents published in 2011 by the Washington Post revealed. The alliance between North Korea and Pakistan extended to Iran as well, as all three countries shared information and technology, John Schilling, a North Korea expert and aerospace engineer, told the Washington Post.

Other countries have lent more inadvertent support. Hibbs told the Atlantic that North Korea developed the ability to create a plutonium separation plant after North Korean agents had “chatted up” Belgian scientists at a meeting in Vienna during the 1970s or ‘80s. A United Nations report in 2016 revealed that North Korea has evaded sanctions to develop its nuclear program by “embedding themselves in the transnational networks of foreign partners to conceal their prohibited activities.”

While its efforts include allies in the Middle East, Asia and Africa, it also has involved the U.S.’ European allies; Channel 4 reported that the country’s “web of secretive front companies” around the world included a south London business that was secretly channeling up to £33 million a year to leader Kim Jong Un. The country has also used secretive tax havens to conceal its financial paper trails, including a firm set up by a British banker and registered in the British Virgin Islands.

As a result of North Korea’s complex international network, the UN reported in 2014 that a North Korean missile found in 2012 contained “a number of foreign-sourced components,” including items manufactured in the United Kingdom, U.S. and Switzerland. Most of the foreign-sourced items were not expressly prohibited, the report found, and Channel 4 noted the manufacturers were likely unaware the items would be used for North Korea’s nuclear program.

Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

North Korea’s program is now more domestically based

All of this foreign assistance has allowed North Korea to become the nuclear power it is today. After initially signing both the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in 1985 and an Agreed Framework with the U.S. in 1994, in which North Korea agreed to shut down its plutonium production, the country pulled out of the Nonproliferation Treaty and fully resumed its nuclear activities in 2003. North Korea claimed to have tested its first nuclear missile in 2006, before going on to complete another five nuclear tests through September 2017.

U.S. intelligence agencies cited by the Washington Post in March estimated that North Korea now has up to 60 nuclear warheads and has successfully produced a compact warhead capable of fitting in the payload of a ballistic missile.

Over time, the country’s nuclear development has become more domestic, rather than relying on international support. Schilling told the Washington Post that though the country does need to import some components, North Korea is now “much more efficient and effective” at producing nuclear weapons itself.

“It doesn’t need to be done on a large scale, and it doesn’t need anyone else’s active collaboration, so it would be very difficult to stop,” Schilling told the Post about the country’s nuclear program as it exists now.

While North Korea’s nuclear development has been ongoing, its efforts have been ramped up in recent years by Kim Jong Un, who took power in 2013. Scott A. Snyder, a North Korea expert and a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, told the Post that much of North Korea’s nuclear developments can now be attributed to Kim’s regime and its focus on the nuclear program, as the leader has “stepped on the gas pedal” and made weapons development a key priority.

“When you have a strategic line, a single-minded focus on nuclear and economic development, and you’re able to politically mobilize an entire state infrastructure to that end, it provides a lot of potential momentum,” Snyder told the Post. “That’s what Kim Jong Un has done.”