North Korea's Nuclear Politics

Eddy Rosales Chavez
March 27, 2017

Submitted as coursework for PH241, Stanford University, Winter 2017


Fig. 1: Kim Il-sung in 1984. (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

North Korea's nuclear power program has been surrounded by ambiguity since its beginnings. In the early 1990s, the former chairman, Kim Il-sung (Fig. 1), denied any plans for such a program. Instead, he claimed that the recent openings of nuclear plants were for energy purposes only. Amidst suspicion from the U.S., the North Korean Government agreed to sign the Agreed Framework treaty in late 1994. The treaty would require North Korea to dismantle five of its graphite reactors in exchange for U.S.-paid oil. However, by the mid 2000's, it was clear that the Korean Government had no intentions to indefinitely put an end to its nuclear ambitions. [1]

Following the terrorist attacks of 9/11, the Bush administration's War on Terror put fighting nuclear weapon development at the top of the country's foreign policy. In fact, North Korea was included as a member of the "Axis of Evil" in President Bush's 2001 State of the Union address. With goals of stopping the country's further development of nuclear weapons, the U.S. agreed to participate in a bilateral set of talks, the Six-Party Talks, along with North Korea, China, Russia, Japan and South Korea. The talks culminated in 2005 with a set of agreements, which included:

Given the recent developments of the talks, it was a surprise when in October of 2006, the North Korean Government tested its first nuclear weapon. Since then, North Korea has held on to its nuclear weapons program and has used it to increase its leverage with the United States and South Korea. [1]

Since taking power in late 2011, Kim Jong-un has erased much of the ambiguity surrounding the country's nuclear program. The new chairman has been vocal about the country's nuclear weapon intentions. In 2016, North Korea tested its most powerful nuclear weapon yet. The detonation took place in a northern region and resulted in an allegedly 5.3 quake magnitude. [2] The state media reported that the test will help North Korea develop smaller nuclear warheads with the ability to travel longer distances. [2]

China's Two Approaches

Since the political separation of Korean Peninsula, China has been one of North Korea's most powerful allies. Although the Chinese Government opposes the strong American presence in South Korea, it has also repeatedly denounced North Korea's nuclear weapon development. However, there are indicators that China may not be as opposed to North Korea's nuclear weapon development as it claims. [3]

During a 2012 military parade in Pyongyang, six missile transporter-erector launchers made by the China Aerospace Science and Industry Corp. were spotted. Moreover, in 2011, Japanese spy satellites recorded a Cambodian ship carrying four Chinese missile launchers into North Korea. [3] The incentives for China to help North Korea develop a nuclear weapons program remain unknown. However, in the time of their cooperation, China has also managed to make the North Korean economy extremely dependent on China. In 2007, the North Korean trade volume with China was $1.9 billion. By 2012, that number had increased to $5.9 billion. [1] Cooperation between the two ensures the Chinese economy's continued growth.

U.S. Approach

For 20 years, the U.S.'s official approach has been to dismantle North Korea's nuclear development. [1] Some, however, criticize the Bush and Obama administrations for their lack of action. In fact, in 2011 the Obama administration urged Japan and South Korea to keep the discovery of the Cambodian ship to North Korea carrying Chinese missile launchers out of the public eye in order to avoid embarrassing China. [3]

The recent North Korean nuclear tests, however, seem to be stirring the U.S.'s passive approach. After the 2016 nuclear test, the North Korean Government claimed to have the ability to attach a similar bomb to a ballistic missile. [2] In response, the U.S. Government has increased sanctions and pushed for more action-based bilateral talks through South Korea. Stronger US-South Korea ties, however, scare the Chinese Government. [1]


After a series of failed non-proliferation treaties, the North Korean Government has discovered the immense leverage of having nuclear weapons. In response, the U.S. Government has quickly had to accept the seriousness of the situation. While the U.S. has historically refused to engage in direct talks with Pyongyang, lack of effective action through the South Korean Government could lead to a change of approach. Meanwhile, the Chinese Government finds itself stuck between continuing to support North Korea and unintentionally pushing South Korea into closer alliance with the U.S. [1]

© Eddy Rosales-Chavez. The author grants permission to copy, distribute and display this work in unaltered form, with attribution to the author, for noncommercial purposes only. All other rights, including commercial rights, are reserved to the author.


[1] J. Choi, "A Game Changer: North Korea's Third Nuclear Test and Northeast Asian Security," J. East Asian Aff. 27, No. 1, 99 (2013).

[2] K. Hunt, K. J. Kwon and J. Hanna, "North Korea Claims Successful Test of Nuclear Warhead, CNN, 10 Sep 2016.

[3] J.A. Lyons and R. D. Fischer, Jr., "China's Boost to North Korean Nukes," Washington Times, 18 Jan 17.