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North Korea's Nuclear Weapons Development and Diplomacy

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Publication Date: May 2009

Publisher(s): Library of Congress. Congressional Research Service

Series: RL33590

Topic: Military and defense (Military equipment and weapons)

Coverage: Korea (North)


North Korea's first test of a nuclear weapon on October 9, 2006, and its multiple missile tests of July 4, 2006, escalate the issue of North Korea in U.S. foreign policy. These acts show a North Korean intent to stage a "nuclear breakout" of its nuclear program and openly produce nuclear weapons. North Korea's actions follow the disclosure in October 2002 that it is operating a secret nuclear program based on uranium enrichment and the decision by the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization (KEDO) in November 2002 to suspend shipments of heavy oil to North Korea. North Korea claims that it has nuclear weapons and that it has completed reprocessing of over 8,000 nuclear fuel rods. U.S. officials and other experts state that North Korea probably had reprocessed most or all of the fuel rods and may have produced enough plutonium for 6-8 atomic bombs.

The main objective of the Bush Administration is to secure the dismantling of North Korea's plutonium and uranium-based nuclear programs. Its strategy has been: (1) terminating the Agreed Framework; (2) withholding U.S. reciprocal measures until North Korea takes steps to dismantle its nuclear programs; (3) assembling an international coalition, through six party negotiations, to apply diplomatic and economic pressure on North Korea; and (4) imposing financial sanctions on foreign banks that facilitate North Korea's illegal counterfeiting activities. China, South Korea, and Russia have criticized the Bush Administration for not negotiating directly with North Korea, and they voice opposition to economic sanctions and to the potential use of force against Pyongyang. China, Russia, and South Korea have expressed support for key North Korean negotiating proposals in six-party talks. The talks have made little progress. North Korea's two long boycotts of the talks (the latest one from November 2005 to November 2006) appears aimed at creating a longterm diplomatic stalemate on the nuclear issue. North Korea has widened progressively the gap between its core negotiating position and the U.S. core position, for example when it asserted that it would not dismantle or even disclose its nuclear programs until light water reactors were physically constructed in North Korea. The widening gap was not narrowed by a statement of the six parties on September 19, 2005, in which North Korea agreed to rejoin the NPT and its 1992 safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency "at an early date" but which also contained a reference to North Korea's right to have a light water reactor.

Critics increasingly have charged that despite its tough rhetoric, the Bush Administration gives North Korea a relatively low priority in U.S. foreign policy and takes a passive diplomatic approach to the nuclear issue and other issues. As a result of growing congressional criticism, the Senate approved an amendment to the Defense Department authorization bill for FY2007 that would require President Bush to name a high level coordinator of U.S. policy toward North Korea and report to Congress on the status of North Korea's nuclear and missile programs. This report replaces IB91141, North Korea's Nuclear Weapons Program, by Larry A. Niksch. It will be updated periodically.