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North Korea and Nuclear Weapons: The Declassified U.S. Record

National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book No. 87

Edited by Robert A. Wampler

April 25, 2003

Links to Selected Online Resources on the North Korean Nuclear Program

North Korea's nuclear weapons program has moved back to the front pages with the unprecedented acknowledgement by North Korea during talks this week in Beijing that the North has developed nuclear weapons. News of this revelation came as Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian Affairs James A. Kelly was preparing to leave Beijing for consultations in Seoul, and leaves the future of the talks uncertain and the threat of a potential escalation in tensions on the peninsula high. This is but the latest step in a simmering crisis that began with the admission by North Korea, after being confronted with hard evidence by Assistant Secretary Kelly in October 2002, that it has been pursuing in secret a nuclear weapons program in violation of the Agreed Framework of 1994 and its adherence to the Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). Pyongyang's subsequent actions in asserting the right to possess nuclear weapons, breaking the seals on its nuclear reactor put there by the International Atomic Energy Agency, withdrawing from the NPT and the expulsion of IAEA inspectors from the Yongbyon nuclear facilities, have kept the crisis simmering, and laid the basis for reported splits within the Bush administration over the best strategy for dealing with Pyongyang. Seemingly replaying debates marking the lead-up to the war with Iraq, newspaper analyses portray the State Department under Secretary of State Colin Powell pressing for diplomacy and efforts to reassure the North Koreans that the U.S. was not seeking regime change, while Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has reportedly called for joining with Beijing to push for removal of the North Korean regime. (Note 1)

For the moment, diplomacy seems to have the upper hand, with a focus on Washington and Pyongyang first trying to feel out the other's positions in the Beijing talks. Incipient brinksmanship combined with uncertainties about what the North has done, much less intends to do, has so far marked the DPRK's actions, as seen in reports that Pyongyang had encountered problems in restarting its nuclear reprocessing facility, and the confusion over the correct English translation of a statement on the North Korean official website, which the North Koreans originally translated to announce the successful reprocessing of spent nuclear fuel rods, only to be revised a day later to say the country was "successfully going forward to reprocess work." (Note 2)

To contribute to public understanding about this potential crisis and its historical roots, The National Security Archive is releasing the first in a planned series of Electronic Briefing Books on U.S. policies toward the Korean Peninsula. The subject of this first briefing book is U.S. intelligence and policy regarding North Korea's nuclear weapons program. Compared to what is available on Iraq and other suspected proliferating governments, there is a serious lack of declassified documents on this issue that can help the public and scholars understand and analyze the historical development of U.S. policies on the North Korean nuclear program, though there is a wealth of public data available on the Internet (see below for a selective list of these sites). The documents described below are a selection of both declassified and publicly released intelligence assessments, policy statements and reports on the North Korean nuclear program. Other documents provide a fascinating window on the policies pursued by the Reagan and first Bush administrations in addressing this issue, and the way in which both diplomatic and ideological crosscurrents have complicated or hampered U.S. efforts.

The U.S. Intelligence Reports

The declassified intelligence documents show the evolution of intelligence concern about the North Korean nuclear program. Initial identification of the program by the CIA in the early 1980s was not immediately followed by concern that North Korea was seeking to develop nuclear weapons (see "A Ten-Year Projection …"). By the mid-1980s, CIA analysis discussed not only the components of the nuclear program, but the potential that North Korea would, indeed, seek to develop nuclear weapons. However, the CIA did note the energy-production rationale for the program and the lack of evidence that the North was actually planning to joint the nuclear club. The concerns raised by this intelligence prompted U.S. efforts to secure cooperation from Moscow and Beijing, as well as Western supplier nations, in refusing to provide North Korea with materials needed for its nuclear program (see the ca. January 5, 1985 Department of State Briefing Paper). By the very late 1980s, however, the rapid expansion of the North Korean program was the subject of several analyses. These intelligence assessments should be viewed along with those available on a number of the websites cited below which provide testimony by various Directors of Central Intelligence on the North Korean nuclear threat. These analyses must also be read with an understanding of the uncertainties and ambiguities that surround any effort to assess the capabilities and intentions of such a secretive regime as North Korea's. (Note 3)

Diplomatic Controversy and the Chinese Role

Other documents shed light on the internal policy deliberations and debates that have marked prior administrations' efforts to address the threat posed by the North Korean nuclear program. An excerpt from an interview with Charles W. Freeman, a long-time State Department China hand who was deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing during the Reagan years, centers on Freeman's recollections about a still-born step toward opening direct talks with North Korea that might have emerged from a surprising Chinese offer during the first Reagan administration to broker such discussions. This initiative was effectively killed, according to Freeman, by the determined opposition of Paul Wolfowitz, who was then Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs. Freeman speculates that Wolfowitz's hostility to the initiative was rooted in part in the latter's ideological suspicion of any Chinese initiative and his concerns over adverse reactions from the Republican right-wing to such talks (see pp. 430-431 of the excerpt). Wolfowitz's reputed role as the intellectual driving-force behind the hard-line positions taken by the Defense Department on Iraq, North Korea and other members of the "Axis of Evil" suggests that long-standing debates continue to be waged in the current administration.

Two documents provide insight into how the first Bush administration faced the North Korean nuclear issue, suggesting that more collegiality marked relations between Foggy Bottom and the Pentagon at that time than now. A briefing paper for Under Secretary of State Reginald Bartholomew's trip to Beijing in the summer of 1991 outlines the concerns of the State Department over the growing evidence that Pyongyang was continuing to pursue a nuclear weapons capability in violation of its NPT commitments. As with the current Bush administration, the senior Bush's State Department sought Beijing's cooperation in pressing North Korea to live up to its commitments and avoid taking steps that could destabilize the Korean peninsula and the entire East Asia region.

The Baker-Cheney Cable

The November 18, 1991 cable from Secretary of State James Baker to Secretary of Defense (and now Vice President) Richard Cheney provides a fascinating inside view of U.S. diplomacy on North Korea, especially when one is aware of the larger framework of U.S. diplomacy that shaped Baker's comments, as well as the role played by policy-makers in the current Bush II administration. As Baker was returning from his Asian trip and Cheney was preparing to head to Korea for security consultations with Seoul, a number of diplomatic initiatives aimed at addressing the security situation on the Korean peninsula were in play. (Note 4) At the time, South and North Korea were engaged in delicate parallel negotiations aimed at agreements on reconciliation between the two countries and the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula. U.S. policy was coming to give priority to denuclearization as a prerequisite to reconciliation, and in line with this goal, had put heavy pressure on South Korean President Roh Tae Woo, personally applied by then Undersecretary of Defense for Policy (and current Deputy Secretary of Defense) Paul Wolfowitz during the summer of 1991, to accept a joint ban with the North on nuclear reprocessing. Then, the decision by the Bush administration in October 1991 to withdraw its nuclear weapons from South Korea as part of a worldwide drawdown of U.S. tactical nuclear deployments was a key step towards denuclearizing the peninsula. For his part, President Roh wanted to take the lead in negotiations with the North, and was opposed to any U.S. direct contacts with Pyongyang, which Baker in this cable seemed open to considering, if only to clarify the U.S. position.

Other diplomatic currents involved Tokyo and Beijing. Seoul had been very unhappy with the free-lance diplomacy of the Japanese political dealmaker Shin Kanemaru, who had visited North Korea in September 1991 and discussed with Kim Il Sung normalization of ties between their two countries, an act the very possibility of which could upset Roh's complex diplomatic pas-de-deux with the North. (see Paragraph 4 of the cable). As the result of Seoul's pressure on the Japanese government, Kanemaru was brought back on the reservation and Tokyo's position was brought into line with that of South Korea and the U.S. (see Paragraph 7) If Seoul was concerned to keep Japan out of the diplomatic mix, Baker and the U.S. seemed to feel that Beijing had a more positive role to play, if done discretely (see Paragraph 8) This estimation (or over-estimation in the views of some) of Beijing's leverage on Pyongyang is echoed in current administration views on how to handle the recent North Korean nuclear crisis-in-waiting.

The final, and key in Baker's view, role was that of the U.S. As he noted to Cheney, Seoul had to realize that it could not bring North Korea to agreement on the denuclearization of the peninsula alone. [See paragraph 6] Other U.S. military moves in connection with its force levels in South Korea also needed to be choreographed so as to support U.S. diplomatic efforts in all these capitals. As Baker summed up the situation,

The US remains key to orchestrating international pressures on their [i.e. South Korea's] behalf. In my mind, this also means that while we need to be sensitive to South Korea's concerns, they need to appreciate that our security commitments and interests give us a big say, too. [Paragraph 6]

Note: The following documents are in PDF format.
You will need to download and install the free Adobe Acrobat Reader to view.

Document 1: [CIA], North Korea: Nuclear Reactor, July 9, 1982.

This brief article, possibly from the National Intelligence Daily, notes that a new nuclear research reactor is being built at the Yongbyon Nuclear Research Center. The article also notes the similarity of the new reactor to North Korea's other reactor, the training and skills of North Korean nuclear physicists, and the implications if the reactor is being built with or without Soviet assistance.

Document 2: CIA, A 10-Year Projection of Possible Events of Nuclear Proliferation Concern,
May 1983.

The redacted version of this 25-page paper contains a brief section on North Korea, which notes that "we have no basis for believing that the North Koreans have either the facilities or materials necessary to develop and test nuclear weapons."

Document 3: Interview with Charles W. Freeman, excerpted from China Confidential: American Diplomats and Sino-American Relations, 1945-1996, compiled and edited with introduction and conclusion by Nancy Bernkopf Tucker (Columbia University Press, New York, 2001) [used by permission of Professor Tucker]

This excerpt from an interview with State Department China hand Charles W. Freeman, who was deputy chief of mission at the U.S. embassy in Beijing during the Reagan administration, discusses as fascinating and little known proposal from the Chinese in the early 1980s to promote direct talks between the United States and North Korea. According to Freeman, during Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger's visit to Beijing in the summer of 1983, Deng Xiaoping proposed a meeting in Beijing between the South and North Koreans, with the U.S. in attendance and hosted by China. This important initiative, which Freeman said the Chinese Foreign Ministry confirmed, was killed by then Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs Paul Wolfowitz (and Deputy Secretary of Defense in the present Bush administration), who accused the U.S. embassy of "having put words into Deng's mouth." According to Freeman, Wolfowitz was instrumental again in the spring of 1984 in reversing Secretary of State George Shultz's agreement during Reagan's visit to China to such a four-power meeting. As Freeman characterized the Chinese proposal, it was a "pretty creative and useful suggestion," which ran aground on ideological shoals within the Reagan administration.

Document 4: CIA, East Asia Brief, April 20, 1984.

This brief contains reporting and speculation concerning the new North Korean reactor - noting the construction of a cooling tower, while estimating the type of reactor and fuel source involved. It also gives an estimate of when the reactor will be completed.

Document 5: Department of State Briefing Paper, ca. January 5, 1985

This briefing paper, apparently prepared for Secretary of State George Shultz's meeting with Soviet Foreign Minister Andrei Gromyko in Geneva, notes the U.S. concern over North Korea's construction of a nuclear reactor that could produce weapons-grade plutonium, and U.S. efforts to secure cooperation from Moscow and Beijing in denying Pyongyang sensitive nuclear materials.

Document 6: CIA, East Asia Brief, December 27, 1985.

The only non-redacted portion of the substantive portion of this document notes a TASS report that the Soviet Union will be helping North Korea to build the reactor. It suggests that North Korea's accession to the NPT was the Soviet price.

Document 7: CIA, North Korea: Potential for Nuclear Weapon Development, September 1986.

This 45-page study examines various factors influencing North Korea's ability to develop nuclear weapons. Among the issues addressed are the time required for North Korea to develop nuclear weapons, the background of the nuclear program, reprocessing, nonnuclear aspects of weapons development (e.g., high-explosive development), and delivery systems.

Document 8: CIA, North Korea's Nuclear Efforts, April 28, 1987.

This brief (4 pp.) analysis provides an update of the status of the North Korean nuclear program, and links the program primarily to an attempt to improve its economy by creating an additional capacity to produce energy. The analysis also provides background on the program, considers the potential for developing nuclear weapons, and examines the relationship between the reactor, the NPT, and the Soviet Union.

Document 9
: CIA, NORTH KOREA: Delaying Safeguards Agreement, May 28, 1987.

This brief note, apparently from the National Intelligence Daily, notes that North Korea "has been slow in complying with provisions of the Non-Proliferation Treaty …" It also noted that "there is no indication that North Korea has an active nuclear weapons program."

Document 10: CIA, North Korea's Expanding Nuclear Efforts, May 3, 1988.

This paper updates the analysis of April 1987, noting the background of the North Korean effort, the construction of the reactor (and details about its nature), and the existence of a major hydroelectric power project in southwestern North Korea. While noting the role the reactor can play in addressing North Korea's energy problems it also observes that "the new … reactor raises some questions."

Document 11: CIA, North Korea's Expanding Nuclear Efforts, May 26, 1988.

This paper is substantially the same in content as the May 3 version.

Document 12: CIA, Nuclear Proliferation Survey: The Next Generation, November 1988.

After redaction, the only information that remains about the North Korean nuclear program is one short paragraph, which notes development of a nuclear capability for undetermined use and foot-dragging on safeguards negotiations.

Document 13: CIA, NORTH KOREA: Nuclear Program of Proliferation Concern, March 22, 1989.

This brief report begins with the statement that "North Korea is rapidly expanding its nuclear-related activities." In redacted form, it provides some basic information about the Yongbyon reactor and North Korea's interaction with the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Document 14: FBIS/CIA, Trends, August 9, 1989.

This one page report notes North Korea's public denial that it is developing a nuclear weapons capability and provides details on the statement made by that country's news agency.

Document 15: Department of State Talking Points Paper for Under Secretary of State Bartholomew's China Trip, ca. 30 May 1991. Subject: North Korean Nuclear Program (For China) [FOIA-Declassified 2002]

This talking points paper, prepared for Under Secretary of State Reginald Bartholomew's trip to China in 1991, summarizes the U.S. concerns about Pyongyang's failure to carry out its obligations under the NPT and the evidence that the Yongbyon Nuclear Research Center will be able to produce plutonium, leading to a North Korean nuclear weapon by the mid-1990s. The U.S. approach that Bartholomew was to present to the Chinese leaders stressed the preference for a "broadly based, concerted international consensus" as providing the best hope for bringing North Korea into compliance with its NPT obligations. The U.S. position also opposed any linkage between U.S. security arrangements in South Korea and North Korea's obligation to carry out its IAEA safeguards agreement. Bartholomew was to urge the Chinese to continue to raise these issues with the DPRK and press Pyongyang to meet their NPT commitments.

Document 16: Department of State, Cable, Secretary of State James Baker to Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney, 18 November 1991. Subject: Dealing with the North Korean Nuclear Problem; Impressions from My Asia Trip. [FOIA-Declassified 1998]

This cable provides Secretary of State Baker's views on the positions being taken in Seoul, Beijing and Tokyo on dealing with the problem of the DPRK nuclear program. (See also the introductory essay for more on this cable.) It is marked by a clear sense of the interplay of different perspectives and concerns motivating the three governments, as well as the need for a coordinated U.S.-Japanese-Chinese-Soviet approach to placing pressure on the DPRK to implement an IAEA safeguards regime and to working out in parallel with the ROK a joint North-South commitment to forego nuclear reprocessing capabilities. As Baker summed up the approach of the first Bush administration, "we are starting to build the basis for a parallel strategy of coordinating diplomatic pressures on the North--combined with ROK initiatives through the North-South talks--and our defense reassurances to Seoul."

Document 17: International Atomic Energy Agency, Agreed Framework of 21 October 1994 Between the United States of America and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, November 2, 1994.

This information circular contains the text of the agreed framework, under which, inter alia, the DPRK agreed to freeze its graphite-moderated reactors and related facilities (which could be used to produce weapons grade plutonium) in exchange for U.S.-led provision of light-water reactors and other economic/energy benefits.

Document 18: IAEA, The DPRK's Violation of its NPT Safeguards Agreement with the IAEA, 1997.

This is an excerpt from the 1997 History of the International Atomic Energy Agency. It reviews some of the interaction between the DPRK and IAEA, the terms of the agreed framework, and North Korean violation of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.

Document 19: Robert D. Walpole, National Intelligence Officer for Strategic and Nuclear Programs, North Korea's Taepo Dong Launch and Some Implications on the Ballistic Missile Threat to the United States, December 8, 1998.

This report contains information on the August 31, 1998 Taepo Dong 1 launch and its implications, the controversial 1998 national intelligence estimate on the ballistic missile threat to the United States.

Document 20: William J. Perry, Review of United States Policy Toward North Korea: Findings and Recommendations, October 12, 1999.

Former Secretary of Defense William Perry headed a North Korea policy review team, tasked in November 1998 by President Clinton with conducting an extensive review of U.S. relations with the DPRK. The team's report focused on the assessment of the security situation on the Korean Peninsula, the perspective of regional actors, alternative policies, and offered an overall strategy and recommendations.

Document 21: U.S. House of Representatives, North Korea Advisory Group, Report to the Speaker, November 1999.

The report, prepared by a group of Republican congressman for Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, addressed the question "Does North Korea pose a greater threat to U.S. national security than it did five years ago?" Its conclusions included the observation that "There is significant evidence that undeclared nuclear weapons development activity continues."

Document 22: CIA, Untitled, November 2002.

This one page assessment was provided to Congress. It reports CIA conclusions with regard to possible North Korean possession of nuclear weapons, the consequences of a collapse in the 1994 agreed framework, as well as the North Korea's uranium-enrichment program.

Document 23: International Atomic Energy Agency, Report by the Director General on the Implementation of the NPT Safeguards Agreement Between the Agency and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, November 29, 2002.

This report notes the Board of Governors' "extreme concern" with "recent reports of an unsafeguarded DPRK uranium enrichment programme." It also "deplores the DPRK's repeated public statements that it is entitled to possess nuclear weapons" and urges North Korea to "give up any nuclear weapons programme."

Document 24: Larry A. Niksch, CRS, North Korea's Nuclear Weapons Program, February 27, 2003.

This is the most recent iteration of a frequently updated unclassified analysis of the DPRK's nuclear weapons program, produced by the Congressional Research Service. The paper examines North Korean action since October 2002, Bush administration policy, the state of the DPRK nuclear program, and a number of issues related to the Agreed Framework.

Links to Selected Online Resources on the North Korean Nuclear Program:

1) Monterey Institute of International Studies, Center for Nonproliferation Studies, North Korea Special Collection: http://cns.miis.edu/research/korea/index.htm

2) Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Korean Peninsula - Carnegie Resources: http://www.ceip.org/files/nonprolif/countries/country.asp?ID=5&country=korea

3) IAEA DPRK Website: http://www.iaea.org/worldatom/Press/Focus/IaeaDprk/index.shtml

4) Arms Control Association, Country Resources - North Korea Webpage: http://www.armscontrol.org/country/northkorea/

5) Nuclear Threat Initiative (NTI) Source Documents: http://www.nti.org/e_research/e8_sourcedocs.html


1. See David E. Sanger, "North Korea Says It Now Possesses Nuclear Arsenal," The New York Times, April 25, 2003; David E. Sanger, "Administration Divided over North Korea," The New York Times, April 21, 2003; and Glenn Kessler, "State-Defense Policy Rivalry Intensifying," The Washington Post, April 22, 2003.

2. See Glenn Kessler and Walter Pincus, "N. Korea Stymied On Plutonium Work: Reprocessing Lab Called Antiquated," The Washington Post, March 20, 2003; and Don Kirk, "North Korea Revises Web Report on Fuel Rods," The New York Times, April 21, 2003 (accessed on the New York Times webpage April 22, 2003]

3. See for example Leon V. Sigal, Disarming Strangers: Nuclear Diplomacy with North Korea, Princeton University Press, 1998, pp. 90 passim for a detailed discussion of these issues in connection with the November 1993 National Intelligence Estimate that concluded North Korea already had one or two nuclear weapons.

4. For a detailed analysis of U.S. diplomacy regarding the North Korean nuclear program (which this discussion draws upon), see Sigal, Disarming Strangers: Nuclear Diplomacy with North Korea.

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