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    Nuclear Weapons

    (Updated: March 1999)
    Although little is known about North Korea's nuclear history, much of the country's nuclear program is believed to have grown out of technology developed in the former Soviet Union during the Cold War.

    The controversy surrounding the North's nuclear capabilities has typically centered around the city of Yongbyon, about 60 miles north of the capital, Pyongyang. According to intelligence reports, the North once had several nuclear facilities there with the potential to produce nuclear weapons, including:

  • An atomic reactor, with a capacity of about 5 megawatts, constructed between 1980 and 1987. It is reportedly capable of expending enough uranium fuel to produce about 7 kilograms of plutonium annually, or enough to manufacture a single atomic bomb every year. In May 1994, North Korea shut down the reactor and removed about 8,000 fuel rods, which could have been reprocessed into enough plutonium for four to five nuclear weapons.
  • Two larger atomic reactors under construction since 1984. The United States and the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) speculate the 50-megawatt plant began operations in early 1995 and the 200-megawatt facility started operating a year later. Analysts estimated these are capable of producing enough spent fuel annually for 200 kilograms of plutonium, sufficient to manufacture nearly 30 atomic bombs per year.
  • A plutonium reprocessing building that atomic experts said fit the definition of a plant where weapons-grade Plutonium-239 is separated from a reactor's spent fuel.

    North Korea has reportedly also developed missiles believed capable of delivering nuclear warheads. In 1993, the nation tested a SCUD missile with a range estimated at 600 miles, able to hit both South Korea and part of Japan.

    "[The nuclear accord will be] a kind of test or touchstone to know if the divided two Koreas can work together." – South Korean official Chang Sun Sup
    During the early 1990s, the United States and South Korea tried to engage the hermit kingdom in talks designed at securing North Korean adherence to treaties such as the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty and other denuclearization agreements. But the North rebuffed U.S. and international demands for inspections. In 1992, inspectors found evidence that North Korea had probably reprocessed more plutonium than the 80 grams it had disclosed to the International Atomic Energy Agency. The IAEA called for a "special inspection" of two apparent nuclear waste sites at Yongbyon. North Korea rejected the request and threatened to withdraw from the non-proliferation treaty in 1993.

    The threat led to more talks between North Korea and the United States. North Korea "suspended" its withdrawal from the NPT when the Clinton administration agreed to a high-level meeting in 1994. That year the two countries concluded a formal nuclear treaty known as the Agreed Framework.

    Under the deal North Korea agreed to suspend its efforts to build nuclear weapons and dismantle its existing graphite nuclear-power reactor. In exchange, North Korea would receive two light-water nuclear reactors, with fuel more difficult to convert to weapons use. North Korea would also receive 500,000 tons of fuel oil each year.

    In August 1997, North Korea broke ground on the $5 billion nuclear energy project. The United States, South Korea, and Japan met in New York in February 1998 to discuss how to finance the project, but failed to reach agreement on the issue. In July, the Washington Post reported that the 1994 agreement between the United States and North Korea was under severe strain because the administration had not found the money to finance the deal. Meanwhile, observers say North Korea's fuel situation remains dire, and many factories have shut down.

    Despite North Korean pledges to honor the nuclear accord, news reports surfaced in August that the country was believed to be at work on a new, secret underground nuclear facility. Clinton administration officials, briefed on intelligence data, described a large-scale tunneling and digging operation in a mountainside about 25 miles northeast of Yongbyon, the former nuclear research center.

    After pressure from the U.S., North Korea agreed in March 1999 to allow U.S. officials to inspect the underground facility. The agreement, which came after four rounds of talks in New York, called for the first inspection to take place in May. – Tim Ito, washingtonpost.com


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