With no oil reserves and limited coal reserves, North Korea is generally deficient in energy resources. However, it is rich in uranium and is ranked among the world’s top countries with graphite reserves. In 1953, shortly after the Korean War ended, Kim Il-sung told his senior officials that it is imperative that they acquire nuclear weapons, marking the starting point of North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.
But North Korea would not have succeeded without the backing of its powerful Communist allies, the Soviet Union and China.
Looking at historical evidence, their assistance can be seen.
Former USSR Specialists
In 1962, upon invitation, a group of USSR nuclear scientists led by Vladislav Kotlav, traveled to the mountainous area in the northern region of North Korea to build facilities, what would become known as the Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center. The Research Center had over 100 nuclear technicians and researchers, most of whom were young Soviet specialists who had studied nuclear physics in the USSR. Kotlav and his team of Soviet scientists supervised the construction of a light water reactor, the IRT-2000 Nuclear Research Reactor, for North Korea, according to the Nuclear Threat Initiative, a U.S.-based research organization. The nuclear reactor was completed in 1965.
North Korea’s light water reactor was constructed in preparation for making nuclear weapons. But it is difficult to extract plutonium—a raw material key to making nuclear weapons—with such a reactor. The light water reactor was just the beginning for North Korea’s ambitious nuclear program. Completion of the light water reactor in Yongbyon caught the United States’ attention. Since the 1960s, the United States has kept close watch on the Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center. In the same year as the reactor’s completion, a U.S. reconnaissance satellite took photographs of the reactor. Later in 1967, 1970, and 1975, Yongbyon expanded its nuclear facilities. In spite of intelligence on North Korea’s nuclear development, the U.S was not concerned about the country’s ambition for a nuclear weapons program until the mid-1980s, according to declassified reports from U.S. intelligence.
But with the disintegration of the USSR in 1991, the event brought North Korea a welcome opportunity. Scores of Soviet scientists who had specialized in nuclear weapons research were now out of a job—and North Korea was keen to hire them.
In December 1992, during a speech given at the Russian parliament, Viktor Barannikov, then-director of Russia’s state counterintelligence service, FSK, revealed that his agents stopped 64 Russian missile specialists from going to a country to build missile complexes that could deliver nuclear weapons. He did not reveal the country, but journalists located the specialists and learned that they were headed for North Korea, as detailed in “The North Korean Nuclear Program,” a collection of academic research published in 2000.
Also in 1992, Russian authorities raided and stopped a flight about to take off from Moscow, which carried 36 Russian missile design specialists headed to North Korea to be recruited for designing missiles. These scientists came from a nuclear research and development center located in the Ural Mountains, according to a report by United Press International. They were promised monthly wages of $1,500 to $4,500.
Today it is still unclear how many nuclear weapon specialists who previously worked for the USSR have been hired away by North Korea. But those scientists and technicians would have been prime targets for North Korean overtures.
To North Korea Via Pakistan Via China
North Korea also established ties with “the father of Pakistan’s nuclear bomb” and nuclear physicist Abdul Kadeer Khan (A.Q. Khan). After his arrest, Khan admitted that he had sold North Korea more than 20 P1 and P2 centrifuges for uranium enrichment in 1990. Khan had visited North Korea’s nuclear facilities, while North Korean nuclear researchers secretly paid visits to Pakistan. According to International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) experts, the plutonium extraction technology used at the nuclear reactor in Yongbyon has the stamp of Pakistan on them.
In his memoir published in 2006, former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf admitted that North Korea engaged in secret transactions with an international underground nuclear trafficking network run by Khan. Khan holds a PhD in metallurgical engineering, and once worked for a uranium enrichment company in Europe. In 1975, Khan secretly returned to Pakistan with the blueprints for making centrifuges, and began directing Pakistan’s nuclear weapons research. President Musharraf admitted that under Khan’s leadership, Pakistan’s main source of materials and technologies for making nuclear weapons had been through an underground network that operated mainly in developed European countries. Shortly after, Khan established his own underground trafficking network, and North Korea was one of his biggest clients. According to Musharraf’s memoir, Khan sold nearly two dozen P1 and P2 centrifuges to North Korea, in addition to providing them with measuring equipment and fuel for operating centrifuges. Khan also passed on centrifuge technologies to North Korean specialists and took them to see his top-secret centrifuge workshop.
The IAEA, which was in charge of Khan’s investigation, was shocked to discover just how far-reaching his network was. Its investigation revealed that about 30 businesses from 30 countries have been involved in this black market.
But where exactly did Pakistan get its nuclear technologies from? Huang Ciping, a former researcher at China Institute of Atomic Energy, a state research institute, during the 1980s, said in a February interview with the Chinese broadcaster New Tang Dynasty Television: “Part of our job was to pass on our nuclear technologies to Pakistan and other countries. They sent experts here to learn from us, and China also sent our experts especially to Pakistan to provide them with technical assistance.”
China also passed on nuclear raw materials. A 2009 Washington Post article published excerpts of A.Q. Khan’s written accounts that the newspaper obtained. Khan wrote that in 1982, China provided 50 kilograms of weapon-grade enriched uranium to Pakistan, enough to make two nuclear bombs. “Current and former U.S. officials say Khan’s accounts confirm the U.S. intelligence community’s long-held conclusion that China provided such assistance,” the Washington Post reported.
In September 2001, United States imposed sanctions on the state-run firm, China Metallurgical Equipment Corporation (MECC), for selling missile parts to Pakistan. Huang Ciping explained the rationale for China assisting Pakistan: “Because China does not get along with India, so China has been helping Pakistan [in its nuclear weapons development] to counter India. Having witnessed such irresponsible acts, I started to seriously doubt whether these advanced technologies would eventually bring benefits or disasters to mankind.”
Over a decade later, Chinese companies continued to aid North Korea. On February 11, 2013, the U.S. State Department issued—as per the Iran, North Korea, and Syria Nonproliferation Act—a list of businesses and individuals that it had imposed sanctions on for being involved with those nations in weapons proliferation. A number of Chinese businesses were implicated, such as BST Technology and Trade Company, China Precision Machinery Import and Export Corporation, Dalian Sunny Industries, and Poly Technologies Incorporated. “These entities contributed materially (or posed a risk of contributing materially) to the proliferation of WMD or their means of delivery (including missiles capable of delivering such weapons),” the State Department said.
China also had another ulterior motive, according to Chen Pokong, an analyst and author on Chinese politics. Chen, citing Wikileaks documents that no longer appear to be available, says that vice premier Qian Qichen, in a bid to save his son from corruption charges, told U.S. intelligence agencies that North Korea’s nuclear capabilities were fostered by Beijing for the purpose of countering the U.S.’s influence over Taiwan. Through six-party talks that would stall indefinitely, the two countries’ ultimate goal was to make the United States choose between abandoning Taiwan or facing war with North Korea.
Translated from Chinese and edited by Annie Wu