North Korea has always been an enigma to the Western world. They are coined the “Hermit Kingdom” by many Western cultures because of their almost complete shut-out of foreign media. Nevertheless, North Korea makes headlines across the world, and lately, those headlines involve one thing — nuclear weapons.
There have always been efforts to curb North Korea’s nuclear program through many acts of diplomacy, but North Korea would typically go back on the pacts they made with any country. It was becoming a trend and a tool that they would use to garner leverage in negotiations: fuel, food, or aid of any kind. But now, they have a working nuclear arsenal, and are threatening the very existence of our planet. So how did they get here? Here’s a brief history of North Korea’s Nuclear Program.
The 1950s: Where it all began
In the 1950s, the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) was recovering from the Korean Conflict, and in need of an energy program they could depend on. In 1956, Soviet Russia began providing training to North Korean engineers and scientists to start their very own nuclear program. Then, in 1959, the DPRK and USSR sign the Nuclear Cooperation Agreement, which was a peaceful pursuit of nuclear energy in which the USSR would help the DPRK establish a working nuclear reactor.
Next: A peaceful purpose can lead to horrifying consequences.
1960s: Russia aids North Korea in building its first reactor
Pursuant to the Nuclear Cooperation agreement, the USSR provided training to North Korean engineers and scientists, and helped construct North Korea’s very own nuclear research facility called the Yongbyon Nuclear Research Complex. That complex features a Soviet IRT-2000 Nuclear Research Reactor. This small reactor can make radioisotopes and the facility is generally used for training scientists.
Next: As the West turns a blind eye, North Korea rolls full steam ahead.
1970s: North Korea quietly produces a lot of uranium
The 1970s were a tumultuous time, and the world was largely occupied by other things. There was the Vietnam War, the height of the Cold War with Russia, and disco was king. As a result, the rest of the world just wasn’t paying attention to the DPRK’s nuclear program.
That’s when North Korea began uranium mining operations in many sites around Suncheon and Pyongsan, locations very close to the aforementioned Yongbyon facility funded by the USSR. Though those mines were used to bolster their own indigenous nuclear program and supply the new nuclear power plants, it’s apparent now that it was just a step towards producing the fission materials needed for a nuclear bomb.
Next: A time of great instability
1980s: The world starts to pay attention
North Korea started its pursuit of nuclear research for the purpose of creating energy, but when the USSR began to lose its grip on the world, North Korea began losing its strongest ally. Between 1980 and 1985, North Korea built a factory in the Yongbyon complex that could refine yellow cake uranium. This is generally when a good deal of saber rattling began.
North Korea would later announce its ambitions to create nuclear weapons. The West then came to negotiate an alternative, and North Korea received aid through fuel or Nuclear Power Technologies. One such agreement was that Russia would provide four state-of-the-art Light Water Reactors (LWRs) if North Korea would sign the treaty on Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), which they did.
Next: Diplomacy begins to fail and the conflict between the West and the DPRK heats up.
1990s: North Korea starts testing bombs
By the the 1990s, it was clear to the international community that the DPRK didn’t have any intentions in honoring the NPT. In December of 1990, they conducted 70-80 high explosives tests at the Yongbyon complex. These tests were essential, as you need high explosives in order to create the fission necessary for a nuclear detonation.
Another agreement (called the Agreed Framework) was met in 1995, in which North Korea agreed to allow inspections of their nuclear facilities, and make good on an agreement made in 1992 to declare their plutonium stockpiles, in exchange for 500,000 metric tons of fuel every year, until two LWR power plants were finished in 2003.
Next: You won’t believe what they do next.
2000s: North Korea goes nuclear
In the early 2000s, North Korea unsurprisingly began to violate the stipulations of the Agreed Framework set out in 1995. They begin ramping up their testing, until October of 2006, when the DPRK announces that it had detonated its first nuclear device.
That being so, there remains speculation as to whether that was accurate, as the detonation registered around just 500 metric tons of TNT (for reference, the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima in 1945 registered as equivalent to 15 kilotons of TNT). Some scientists suggest the weapons test ended in a nuclear fizzle, or that it was a ruse to again rattle the saber. Either way, in 2009, their second test had much larger effects, and there was officially no doubt that the DPRK was, in fact, a nuclear power.
Next: Where we are now
2010s: A decade we are sure to remember
Throughout the 2010s, North Korea has been stepping up its nuclear advancements in almost lockstep with every sanction imposed on them by the UN. Additionally, they have been steadily increasing their long range attack capabilities, with the advancement of their ICBM (intercontinental ballistic missile) technology. In 2017, they launched a slew of missiles that went over neighboring countries and landed in the Pacific. Most terrifyingly, they recently advanced their nuclear weapons by detonating their first hydrogen bomb, in a test that led to an earthquake registered at 5.8 on the Richter Scale.
As uncertainty in our global political climate continues to erode, and the hermit kingdom continues its research and development, the outlook does not look good. The Doomsday Clock is currently set to two-and-a-half minutes to midnight, the closest it’s ever been since 1953, when both the USSR and the United States introduced their thermonuclear capabilities. What the future, holds, we don’t know, all we can say is good luck, and godspeed.
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