North Korea: A secretive regime with nuclear ambitions

Posted Tue Jun 2, 2009 5:13pm AEST
Updated Wed Jun 3, 2009 8:46am AEST

Kim Jong-il took over leadership of the totalitarian regime in 1980.

Kim Jong-il took over leadership of the totalitarian regime in 1980. (Reuters: Korea News Service)

One of the world’s most secretive societies, North Korea’s nuclear ambitions have increased its ongoing isolation from the outside world.

As one of the few countries still under communist rule, Supreme Leader Kim Jong-il heads a rigid state-controlled system which toleratates no dissent.

Its dilapidated economy has been hit by natural disasters, poor planning and a failure to modernise.

North Korea, officially named the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, maintains one of the world’s largest armies but standards of training, discipline and equipment are reported to be poor.

The Korean War ended with the armistice of 1953. While this ended armed conflict between the two Koreas, technically they are still at war.

The North has recently fuelled tensions by launching six short-range missiles, renouncing the 1953 armistice and threatening possible attacks on South Korea.


  • Full name: The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea
  • Population: 23.9 million (UN, 2008)
  • Capital: Pyongyang
  • Major language: Korean
  • Life expectancy: 65 years (men), 69 years (women) (UN)
  • Monetary unit: 1 won = 100 chon
  • Main exports: Minerals and metals, cement, agricultural products
  • Major religions: Mainly atheist or non-religious, traditional beliefs

North Korea’s history is dominated by its late "Great Leader", Kim Il-sung, who shaped the regime for almost half a century and handed over rule to his son, Kim Jong-il, in 1980.

Aid agencies say that up to 2 million people have died since the mid-1990s due to food shortages brought on by natural disasters and poor economic management.

The totalitarian state, which relies on foreign aid to feed much of the nation, has also been accused of systematic human rights abuses.

Reports of torture, public executions, slave labour, forced abortions and infanticides in prison camps have emerged.

A US-based rights group estimates there are up to 200,000 political prisoners in North Korea.

South Korea’s "sunshine policy" aimed to encourage change through aid and negotiations with the North.

But in 2002, North Korea’s reactivated a nuclear reactor and expelled international inspectors, dealing a massive blow to hopes of a change in relations.

Nuclear ambitions

Pyongyang said it had successfully tested a nuclear weapon in 2006, sparking alarm worldwide.

Since then, intense diplomatic talks have intended to put a stop to North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.

Things were looking hopeful when Pyongyang agreed to close its main nuclear reactor in return for aid and diplomatic concessions in 2007.

But negotiations soured when North Korea accused the negotiating partners – the United States, South Korea, Japan, China and Russia – of failing to meet their end of the deal.

Tensions between North Korea and the outside world have escalated since late 2008, and in April 2009 North Korea walked out of talks aimed at ending its nuclear activities.

In May 2009, the regime carried out a second underground nuclear test and announced it was no longer bound by the 1953 truce.


Timeline: North Korea’s nuclear path

Posted Mon May 25, 2009 4:15pm AEST
Updated Sat Jul 4, 2009 4:16pm AEST

A chronology of key events:

1961-62 – Construction of Yongbyon Nuclear Research Facility completed, 96 kilometres north of the capital, Pyongyang.

1979 – North Korea starts to build a 5-megawatt nuclear reactor at Yongbyon, aided by years of Soviet nuclear help.

1985 (Dec 12) – Pyongyang signs up to Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

1992-93 – International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors denied access to two suspected nuclear waste sites.

1994 – North Korea quits the IAEA, 20 years after it first became a member state.

1994 – US brokers an agreement (known as the Agreed Framework) to freeze plutonium production in the country, and halt all work at the Yongbyon facility in exchange for aid.

1998 – North Korea tests Taepadong long-range missile. The test fails but it is thought to have provided a financial windfall for the communist state, with the suspected sale of weapons systems internationally.

2002 – Most international diplomacy with North Korea ceases after President George W Bush lists North Korea in the "Axis of Evil".

2002 – North Korea restarts its nuclear facilities at Yongbyon and expels officials from the IAEA.

2003 – North Korea officially withdraws from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

2003 (Aug) – Six-party talks formed with China, Japan, North Korea, Russia and the United States.

2005 (Feb) – North Korea admits publicly for the first time that it has nuclear weapons.

2006 (July 5) – Launches six ballistic missiles including the Taepadong-2. The T-2 fails, however the other short-range missiles fire successfully.

2006 (Oct 9) – Conducts first successful underground nuclear test.

2007 (Feb 13) – North Korea agrees to start shutting its reactor and allow UN nuclear inspectors back into the country in exchange for aid.

2008 (Oct 11) – The US says it will take North Korea off its state sponsors of terrorism list, following verbal agreement on dismantlement.

2009 (April 5) – North Korea launches a multistage rocket. A week later the UN security council adopts a declaration condemning North Korea for the launch.

2009 (April 14) – North Korea’s foreign ministry says the country will quit six-party nuclear talks, and restart Yongbyon.

2009 (May 25) – Conducts second successful underground nuclear test.

2009 (May 26) – In a further act of defiance in the face of international condemnation, North Korea test fires two short-range missiles.

2009 (May 27) – North Korea declares it is no longer bound by the armistice signed in 1953 at the end of the Korean war after South Korea joins a US-led naval blockade.

2009 (June 1) – South Korea accuses the North of preparing to test fire an intercontinental ballistic missile.

2009 (June) – Barack Obama’s administration issues a warning to all US banks that North Korea may try to avoid financial sanctions by engaging in deceptive practices.

2009 (June 12) – UN Security Council passes tough new sanctions in response to North Korea’s nuclear tests, calling on all members of the international community to stop and search its ships for weapons.

The North responds to the UN sanctions by promising to "weaponise" all its plutonium and step up its nuclear bomb-making by enriching uranium.

2009 (June 18) – Russia and China – the country’s traditional allies – call for North Korea to return to the negotiating table.

2009 (July 2) – North Korea test fires two short-range missiles off its east coast.

2009 (July 4) – North Korea test fires seven suspected Scud missiles off its east coast into the Sea of Japan.


N Korea nuclear row: How serious is the threat?

Posted Mon May 25, 2009 4:02pm AEST
Updated Mon May 25, 2009 3:49pm AEST

North Korea says it has conducted a nuclear test, the second for the secretive state after a 2006 blast that was seen by experts as only a partial success due to its relatively low yield.

Pyongyang had threatened a new nuclear test in response to tightened UN sanctions. The following are some questions and answers about the state’s nuclear arms programme:

What is North Korea’s nuclear weapons capability?

North Korea is thought to have produced enough plutonium for about six to eight weapons and has already produced one rudimentary nuclear device. It likely cannot miniaturise a nuclear weapon to mount on a missile and would need a significant amount of testing to master the technology, weapons experts say. And its Soviet-era bombers would not be able to evade the advanced air forces of the United States, Japan and South Korea to deliver a bomb, which means it may be many years before North Korea can actually threaten the world with a nuclear weapon.

How big is the security threat?

The North’s nuclear arms programme is not a major security threat at present because it has not yet shown it can build an effective bomb, nor does it have an effective delivery system.

Results that show the explosive force of the current test should be known in the next few days, which will indicate if the country has improved its nuclear weapons technology.

The biggest security threats posed by the North come from its hundreds of mid-range missiles, which can hit all of South Korea and most of Japan, as well as its artillery batteries posted close to its border with the South. Jane’s Defence estimated the North could rain 500,000 shells an hour into the Seoul area, which is home to about half of South Korea’s 49 million people.

A North Korean first strike with artillery and rockets, which may also carry biological weapons or material to spread radiation poisoning, would cause major damage to economic powers South Korea and Japan, which in turn would deal a heavy blow to the global economy. It would also be a suicidal move, because the US-led counter-strike would quickly destroy North Korea.

What are north korea’s nuclear facilities?

The heart of the North’s nuclear arms programme is the Yongbyon nuclear plant, located about 100km north of the capital Pyongyang. Its key facilities are a plant that makes nuclear fuel, an antiquated reactor that burns the fuel and a plant that separates plutonium from spent fuel. It has various clandestine facilities where it works on weapons designs and uranium enrichment, intelligence sources said.

Will diplomacy work to end the north’s nuclear programme?

Probably not. North Korea for years has used its military threat to squeeze concessions from global powers and experts doubt it will give up its biggest card while leader Kim Jong-il is in charge. For Kim, only nuclear weapons can give his small state real standing in the world. They also underpin his military-first policy in the face of what Pyongyang says is the threat of a US invasion.

How big of a threat is proliferation?

The proliferation threat is real. The United States, under former President George W Bush, suspected the North aided Syria in developing a nuclear programme.

Even though the North’s nuclear arms programme is based on what experts consider outdated technology, cash-strapped North Korea has mastered the nuclear fuel cycle and could sell its nuclear expertise to states aiming to make plutonium for weapons.