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Updated April 2013  

News reports indicate that North Korea's capabilities of launching a nuclear attack are improving. Is there a likelihood that they will use these weapons?

No. The country would face almost certain devestation if it were to act on its threats. Rather these developments appear to be part of an ongoing effort by North Korea to maintain its fierce commitment to a rigid form of communism and at the same time addressing the economic problems which have in part been caused by its isolation from the west. The crisis began in the 1990's with the collapse of the Soviet Union which had been a major trading partner of North Korea. Since the Soviet collapse, North Korea has resisted opening its centrally controlled economy to international business and has instead resorted to nuclear threats in an effort to obtain the economic assistance it needs to survive. Their strategy appears to use such threats as a leverage to negotiate this type of assistance. The situation has been complicated by inconsistent U.S. policies in response to such threats.

How did North Korea become a country? Who is in charge?

North Korea  (Click to see map) lies in the northwest portion of the Korean peninsula which is attached to the mainland of Asia. It is inhabited by 22.2 million people.

The entire Korean peninsula lies directly west of Japan and to the east of China. These two regions have exerted influence over Korea at various times throughout its history. During the first half of the twentieth century, Korea was a part of Japan, having been acquired from Russia at the turn of the century following the Russo-Japanese war.

The status of Korea became a focal point of the "cold war" between the United States and Soviet Union following World War 2. With the surrender of Japan, the northern half of the Korean peninsula was occupied by the Soviet Union and the southern half was occupied by the United States. Although the plan was to unify the peninsula, this became impossible as a Communist-style regime emerged in the north which forbade participation in a United Nations- sponsored unifying election.

The Republic of Korea was created in 1948 in the southern portion of the country and the People's Democratic Republic of Korea was established in the north. Both republics claimed authority to rule Korea as a whole and hostilities became quite common at the border. One such incursion by Northern Korea in June 1950 led to the outbreak of the Korean War. The United Nations Security Council, in the absence of the Soviet Union, adopted a resolution demanding that North Korea withdraw its forces to north of the 38th parallel. When the North Koreans ignored the resolution and approached Seoul, the South Korean capital, the United States led a United Nations force to repel this invasion. After making initial gains, the North Koreans were repelled. Communist China then entered the war in support of North Korea and a prolonged war resulted. The conflict ultimately ended with an armistice in 1953 which established the original 38th parallel as the boundary.

Subsequent to the Korean War, the Communist government of North Korea with the assistance of the Soviet Union used the region's rich mineral and power resources as the basis for an ambitious program of industrialization and rehabilitation.

From 1948 through 1994, political power in North Korea rested with Kim Il-Sung. Prior to assuming power, Kim Il-Sung had a long history of participating in resistance to the Japanese occupation of Korea. After taking command of the country with communist support, he succeeded in constructing a cult of personality with himself as the main icon for adoration. He retained effective power until his death in 1994. In the last decade of his regime, economic development was impeded by a rigid economic system and the loss of trading partners in the Soviet bloc.

After his death, Kim Il-Sung was ultimately succeeded by his son, Kim Jong-il. Unlike his father, who was charismatic and popular, the younger Jong-il is more reclusive. He has a reputation as a vain playboy, with permed hair and lifts in his shoes, and a penchant for foreign liquor. He is believed to be partly responsible for developing North Korea's suspected nuclear weapons program. Within North Korea, there is an effort to construct a new cult of personality around the current leader. He is regularly hailed by the media as the "peerless leader" and "the great successor to the revolutionary cause".

Today the North Korean economy, as measured by per capita GDP, has returned to lower third world levels after having improved substantially during the years of Soviet sponsorship.  (Click to see chart)But North Korea is dissimilar to other poor countries in that literacy is near 100%, it has more doctors per capita than the U.S. and life expectancy is only slightly below the world average. There is universal health care although there is evidence that poverty-related malnutrition and absence of medicines and supplies has severely hampered the system in recent years.

At the same time, South Korea has had phenomenal economic growth and has now joined the ranks of Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries.

What is North Korea's recent history with respect to nuclear weapons?

The crisis has extended for more than two decades and has been a virtual see-saw involving threats by North Korea, angered responses and sanctions from the U.S. and the international community followed by indications of appeasement and a desire for a negotiated settlement from North Korea.

North Korea is a signatory to the 1968 Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. This treaty obligates the five nuclear weapon states (Russia, United States, United Kingdom, France and China) not to transfer nuclear weapons, other nuclear explosive devices, or their technology to any non-nuclear weapon state. The non-nuclear weapon states agree not to acquire or produce nuclear weapons or nuclear explosive devices. All nations are parties to this agreement except India, Pakistan, Cuba, and Israel.

In March 1993, faced with accusations that it was not abiding by the non-proliferation treaty and in response to massive U.S. military exercises in the region, North Korea announced it was withdrawing from the treaty. The initial response of the Clinton Administration was to prepare for a war which would ultimately destroy North Korea. This plan, which would have likely been successful despite an enormous loss of life, was opposed by South Korea but was not abandoned until former U.S. President James Carter (accompanied by CNN) flew to North Korea and engaged in unofficial efforts to achieve a diplomatic solution to the crisis.

Under the terms of an agreement reached in 1994 with the U.S., North Korea promised to freeze its nuclear weapons program in return for fuel oil, paid for by Washington, and two light water reactors that could not easily be converted to produce atomic weapons material. In November 2002, North Korea announced that the U.S. has not kept its commitments under this agreement and that it would resume its nuclear program. Specifically, North Korea claimed that the construction of the lightwater reactors - due to be completed in 2003 - was now years behind schedule due to purposeful delays by the U.S.. The facts seem to support the North Korean claim. In a separate action which the U.S. states is unrelated to the weapons issue, the U.S. has halted shipments of food to North Korea because of alleged concerns regarding the food distribution. At the same time, North Korea has proposed to give up its nuclear program if Washington signs a nonaggression treaty. The U.S. has responded by cutting of all oil shipments to North Korea and persuaded a reluctant South Korea and Japan to do likewise.

On April 23, 2003, negotiations began in Beijing between the US and North Korea, hosted by China. Although the meeting ended in mutual recriminations, US Secretary of State Colin Powell reported that North Korea had made an offer to US to scrap its nuclear program in exchange for major concessions from the United States. This proposal is presently being considered by the United States. The U.S. has recently sent signals that it may soften its position but talks became stalled amid recent revelations of South Korean nuclear activity and the uncertainty about a possible regime change in Washington.

In 2006 North Korea tested long range missiles, causing predictable international consternation. The UN Security Council unanimously supported a resolution to block the shipment of missile parts to North Korea. The US continues to strive toward a diplomatic accommodation with the North Koreans and is hopeful that the North Korean tests will prod China and Japan to assist in applying more diplomatic pressure for a solution.

The tests brought a halt to a trend where North Korea was gradually normalizing relations with the west. Despite its declaration of a nuclear weapons program, North Korea had participated in talks about the situation. The North Korean government had taken steps to re-establish road and rail links with the South and to start work on the project almost immediately; sending more than 600 athletes and representatives to join the Asian games in South Korea; enacting a series of economic and market reforms; and taking steps to normalize relations with Japan. North and South Korean athletes marched together at the 2004 Olympic games in a symbolic display of friendship and cultural unity. Because of these promising signs, the U.S. had softened its position and has sent signals that it would give Pyongyang aid and security guarantees to ease its political and economic isolation in return for a step-by-step dismantling of North Korean plutonium and uranium weapons programs. In the meantime, recent revelations regarding possible South Korea nuclear developments have complicated the controversy.

In June 2008, North Korea destroyed one its nuclear reactors and the U.S. agreed to begin an aid program and to drop North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism. These developments followed a 2007 announcement by North Korea that it would disable its nuclear program.

In August 2009, former US president Bill Clinton met with Kim Jong-il to secure the release of 2 US journalists, who had been sentenced for entering the country illegally. Current U.S. President Barack Obama's position towards North Korea has been to remain calm in the face of these events while resisting accommodating North Korea merely for the sake of defusing tension. In April 2011, Former President Jimmy Carter visited North Korea in an effort to help negotiate a resolution to the nuclear impasse. He reported that North Korea seeks a U.S. security committment in exchange for halting its weapons program.

In March 2010 a South Korean ship was sunk apparently by a torpedo resulting in the loss of 45 lives. South Korea blamed North Korea for the incident and tensions between the two countries are presently very tense. In June 2009, the Associated Press reported that in response to new U.N. sanctions, North Korea declared it would progress with its uranium enrichment program. This marked the first time the DPRK has publicly acknowledged that it is conducting a uranium enrichment program.

In March 2010 March the sinking of the South Korean warship Cheonan, allegedly by the North, raised tensions to new heights. In September 2010, US President Obama signed new sanctions into law in response to sinking of Cheonan warship incident. At the same time, the North made overtures to the South, including an offer of more family reunions and acceptance of flood-damage aid.

On November 23, 2010, North Korea fired about 170 rounds of artillery on Yeonpyeong Island and the surrounding waters near the Yellow Sea border with South Korea.

In February 2011 foot and mouth disease hit North Korean livestock further aggravating the country’s food situation. In December 2011, Kim Jong-il died. His younger son, Kim Jong-un assumed control.

In April 2011, the launch of a "rocket-mounted satellite" to mark the birthday of Kim Il-Sung failed. Most observers think it was a long-range missile test of the sort that North Korea had agreed to suspend in return for US food aid. North Korea indicated that it was no longer bound by the agreement, which also banned nuclear tests.

In October 2012 South Korea and the US unveiled a new missile deal. North Korea responded by indicating that it has missiles that can hit the US mainland. In December 2012, a North Korea rocket launch put a satellite into orbit.. The UN including China regarded this as a violation of a ban on North Korean ballistic missile tests, as the rocket technology is the same.

In January 2013, North Korea announced it would carry out a third "high-level nuclear test" and rehearse more long-range rocket launches aimed at the US "arch-enemy". In February 2013, the test was conducted and said to be twice as big as the 2009 test.

In March 2013 the UN Security Council approved fresh sanctions over North Korea's nuclear test, targeting cash transfers and travel for diplomats. North Koreas threatened the US with a pre-emptive nuclear attack and issued threats to South Korea over nearby islands and non-aggression pacts.

In April 2013 North Korea said it will restart all facilities at its main Yongbyon nuclear complex and withdraws its workers from the South-Korean-funded Kaesong joint industrial park. It also warns foreigners to leave both North and South Korea to avoid the threat of war. It later offers talks to reduce tension of UN sanctions are lifted and the US and South Korea end joint military drills. South Korea rejects the proposals as "incomprehensible".

What is the attitude of South Korea regarding this crisis?

In the late 1990's and the early 2000's, South Korea pursued a "sunshine policy" of engaging in a peaceful dialogue and rapprochement with North Korea. South Korea's approach was thus in contrast to the more confrontational policy of the United States. A historic summit between the two countries in June 2000 resulted in a mutual resolution to address the question of reunification through the joint efforts of the Korean people. The South Korean government has established a "Ministry of Unification" which promotes projects for bi-national cooperation between the two countries. Presently plans are proceeding to establish functional road and railway links and to unify families which had been separated. But progress on such rapprochement has been interrupted by the recent hostilities.

What is the goal of U.S. policy regarding North Korea?

The U.S. has clearly been concerned about North Korean intentions of resuming its nuclear program and its overall emphasis on military production. The U.S. is also concerned that nuclear programs conducted by countries such as North Korea and Iran, combined with nuclear weapons programs already developed by India and Pakistan, will cause other countries to consider such programs as well. Such a development could frustrate the aims of the nuclear nonproliferation treaty and threaten overall world security. But there certainly appears to be aspects of traditional "cold war" policy as well. North Korea is one of the few remaining countries to maintain a communist-style state controlled economy. The U.S. is likely concerned about any unification arrangement between North and South Korea which does not include fundamental reforms in the structure of the North Korean economy. Until these changes occur, it appears that the U.S. will continue a policy to isolate North Korea from the international community. It is this policy and the North Korean response to it that has provoked the current confrontation.

Korea Links

Google Directory - North Korea Conflict

Wikipedia - North Korea Nuclear Program

Wikipedia - South Korea-North Korea relations

About.com - Korean Conflict

Yahoo: News Topics - North Korea

PBS Frontline: North Korea

BBC: Crisis Timeline

The Guardian Special Reports: North Korea

Congressional Research Service - North Korea's Nuclear Weapons Program

North Korea Special Collection From Center for Nonproliferation Studies

Center for Research on Globalisation-Targeting North Korea

Center For Nonproliferation Studies: North Korea

Council on Foreign Relations Crisis Guide: North Korea




(click to enlarge)

North Korea Map

North Korea GDP Per Capita Trend

South Korea, GDP Per Capita, 1980-2010