Threat Report 2018: North Korea’s Nuclear Doctrine


Months of fruitful engagement between North Korea, South Korea and the United States may soon turn sour. Yesterday, Pyongyang warned that ongoing joint military exercises and aggressive statements made by the Trump administration were damaging the diplomatic atmosphere. The regime canceled upcoming talks scheduled with South Korea, and threatened to pull out of the Trump-Kim summit, slated for June 12.

Today’s brief, a part of The Cipher Brief’s 2018 Annual Threat Report, looks at the history of U.S.-North Korea negotiations, and the latter’s nuclear program, with insight into the regime’s end goals and what it may—and may not—be willing to put on the table.

For more information about the 2018 Annual Threat Report, please click here.

Bottom Line: Talks between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un are tentatively scheduled for June 2018, which may open the door to resolve a tense nuclear standoff between Washington and Pyongyang. However, past efforts to strike a deal have failed to deliver lasting results and the two sides could face another missed opportunity for nonviolent reconciliation, especially if Kim refuses to put his stockpile of nuclear weapons on the table.

Background: North Korea’s nuclear program was launched during the 1950s when it sent nuclear scientists to train in the Soviet Union (USSR) and reached cooperative agreements with the USSR to construct its Yongbyon Nuclear Research Center.[i] 

  • Throughout the 1980s, North Korea’s nuclear program expanded significantly as Pyongyang constructed a 5MWe (megawatt electric) nuclear reactor at Yongbyon[ii] and developed more advanced nuclear technologies, including plutonium reprocessing capabilities and light water reactors.[iii]
  • North Korea signed on to the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in December 1985, but initially failed to reach an agreement with International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) – the international body charged with monitoring nuclear facilities to ensure compliance with NPT standards – to conduct inspections at its nuclear locations.[iv]
  • North Korea and South Korea signed the South-North Joint Declaration on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula in January 1992, in which both countries pledged not to “test, manufacture, produce, receive, possess, store, deploy or use nuclear weapons” or to “possess nuclear reprocessing and uranium enrichment facilities.”[v]
  • In January 1992, North Korea reached a safeguards agreement with the IAEA, which required Pyongyang to disclose comprehensive data about its nuclear facilities and materials and provide access for IAEA inspectors to verify the accuracy of the information.[vi] After receiving the details of North Korea’s nuclear program, the IAEA conducted six rounds of investigations at North Korean nuclear sites between May 1992 and February 1993.[vii]
  • However, when the IAEA requested access to two North Korean nuclear waste sites in February 1993, Pyongyang denied the request, leading the IAEA to turn to the United Nations Security Council to enforce its mandate.[viii] In response, North Korea threatened to withdraw from the NPT. The dispute resulted in the first round of talks between the U.S. and North Korea over Pyongyang’s nuclear program beginning in March 1993. Discussions between Washington and Pyongyang culminated with former U.S. President Jimmy Carter traveling to North Korea in June 1994 and negotiating an Agreed Framework deal where North Korea would remain a party to the NPT and freeze its plutonium production in exchange for various forms of U.S. and international assistance, including helping to construct two light water reactors.[ix]

Richard Boucher, former Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia

“The highest direct official discussions by the United States with a North Korean leader occurred when Secretary of State Madeleine Albright visited Pyongyang in 2000. I was with her as State Department spokesman. Kim Jong Il, father of the current leader, hosted her. During their discussions, he made dramatic concessions one after another at the table, sometimes appearing to be swatting away problems like flies. He promised an end to their missile programs. He promised verification. And, he promised that he would make further moves if he got a meeting with then-President Bill Clinton. In the end, the North Koreans didn’t agree on these measures even at subsequent lower-level negotiations. President Clinton didn’t go.”

Issue: North Korea’s leadership has pursued nuclear weapons as a sign of domestic and international legitimacy as well as to deter other countries, namely the U.S., from contemplating military operations aimed at facilitating regime change. As North Korea further develops its nuclear and ballistic missile capabilities, it poses a direct threat to the U.S. homeland, while talks aimed at denuclearizing North Korea have remained elusive.

  • Despite several diplomatic efforts to halt North Korea’s nuclear program, including the Agreed Framework, all three leaders of the Kim regime – Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il and Kim Jong Un – have taken steps to advance the country’s nuclear capabilities. In the initial years of the Bush administration, tensions between Washington and Pyongyang accelerated, leading North Korea to restart its nuclear program after it had stayed relatively dormant under the Agreed Framework.
  • During an October 2002 meeting with North Korean officials, James A. Kelly, former Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs at the U.S. State Department, presented evidence that Pyongyang was operating an illicit highly-enriched uranium program with technology it had obtained from Pakistani nuclear scientist Dr. A. Q. Khan. The evidence suggested that North Korea had failed to provide the IAEA with complete details concerning its nuclear program and that Pyongyang was not complying with the parameters outlined in the Agreed Framework. In response, North Korea stated its right to develop nuclear weapons for self-defense purposes, according to reports from U.S. officials.[x] Washington reacted to this declaration by suspending the assistance it was providing North Korea pursuant to the Agreed Framework. By January 2003, North Korea had kicked out IAEA inspectors and announced its intent to withdraw from the NPT.[xi]
  • In February 2003, North Korea restarted its Yongbyon nuclear reactor that had been frozen in accordance with the Agreed Framework, further increasing tensions. To help alleviate the mounting crisis, trilateral talks between the U.S., North Korea and China were convened in Beijing in April 2003. However, officials in the Bush administration reported that North Korea admitted to possessing nuclear weapons at the meeting, leading to a breakdown in discussions.[xii] In August 2003, Six-Party Talks between the U.S., China, Japan, North Korea, Russia and South Korea were launched to address the North Korean nuclear issue and they would continue through December 2008. North Korea’s Foreign Ministry officially announced that Pyongyang had “manufactured nuclear weapons” in February 2005, injecting a new sense of urgency into the negotiations.[xiii]
  • To date, North Korea has conducted six nuclear tests with the first occurring in October 2006 and the most recent in September 2017. Each progressive test has resulted in a larger yield – the amount of energy released in a nuclear detonation – and an increased magnitude – a measurement used to determine the size of a seismic event that can help estimate the yield of a nuclear explosion.
  • In addition to procuring fissile material such as highly-enriched uranium and plutonium, a second component of creating a functioning nuclear weapon is developing missiles capable of transporting a nuclear device. Over the last decade, North Korea has progressively enhanced its missile technology. In February 2017, North Korea tested a new mid-range ballistic missile, the Pukguksong-2, which has been deemed capable of carrying a nuclear warhead.[xiv]
  • North Korea test launched three intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) in 2017, demonstrating that it may be close to possessing advanced missiles capable of striking the U.S. homeland. On July 4, 2017, North Korea launched its first ICBM, Hwasong-14, which reached an altitude of 1,741 miles and a range of 580 miles during a 39-minute flight.[xv] At the end of July, Pyongyang conducted a second test of the Hwasong-14, which reached an altitude of 2,313 miles and a range of 620 miles during a 47-minute flight. This test indicated that the missile could travel more than 6,213 miles, potentially putting the West Coast of the U.S. within reach.[xvi] In November 2017, North Korea tested the Hwasong-15, which reached an altitude of 2,780 miles and flew 590 miles during a 53-minute flight. According to estimates from that test, the Hwasong-15 may be capable of traveling 8,100 miles, covering enough distance to reach the entire U.S. continent.[xvii] However, questions linger over missile’s ability to carry a nuclear warhead while travelling the necessary distance as well as if the missile is equipped with a re-entry vehicle that would protect an onboard warhead when the missile descends towards its target from space.[xviii]
  • Over the course of the last year, the rhetoric between Washington and Pyongyang has heated up significantly. In August 2017, Trump declared that that if Pyongyang continues to threaten nuclear action, “They will be met with fire, fury, and frankly, power the likes of which this world has never seen before.”[xix] Trump also referred to Kim as “Rocket Man” in a September 2017 speech at the United Nations General Assembly.[xx] In response, Kim called Trump a “mentally deranged U.S. dotard” and promised the “highest level of hardline countermeasure in history.”[xxi]

John McLaughlin, former Acting Director, CIA

“At this point, a preemptive military strike to neutralize the North’s nuclear program is not feasible. It might have been earlier – in fact in 2006, former Secretaries of Defense Bill Perry and Ash Carter actually called for such a strike. But that course is no longer recommended. The program is too advanced, much of it is hidden underground, and the North Korean retaliatory capability via artillery could be devastating for the South Korean capital of Seoul.”

Joseph DeTrani, former Special Envoy for Negotiations with North Korea

“Kim Jong Un may see himself as negotiating from a position of strength, having demonstrated to his people and to the world in 2017 that his is a nuclear weapons state, having launched more than two-dozen missiles, to include an ICBM that can reach the whole of the United States, and what we believe to have been a hydrogen bomb test of at least over 150 kilotons. He may be telling himself, I now have the deterrent capability that can deter the U.S. or others from threatening my country. So he’s coming to the table feeling more as an equal.”

Response: To date, the U.S. has engaged in four major sets of formal negotiations with North Korea to address the ongoing nuclear and ballistic missile crises. However, while the two sides have managed to find common ground in previous talks and reach tentative agreements, the end result has remained the same with North Korea continuing to develop its nuclear arsenal and the U.S. left searching for answers short of direct military confrontation.

  • Bilateral talks between the U.S. and North Korea first began in June 1993 after Pyongyang threatened to withdraw from the NPT and culminated in the October 1994 Agreed Framework negotiated by President Carter. According to the deal, North Korea agreed to immediately freeze and eventually eliminate its nuclear facilities, permit the IAEA to enter into the country to verify its compliance with the deal and relocate its spent nuclear fuel to a third country. In return, North Korea would receive two light water reactors and annual shipments of heavy fuel oil during their construction.[xxii]
  • Negotiations over North Korea’s ballistic missile program occurred in seven rounds between April 1996 and October 2000. In September 1999, North Korea agreed to suspend its long-range missile tests in exchange for the lifting of U.S. sanctions.[xxiii] The U.S. subsequently eased sanctions on North Korea in June 2000, enabling the trade of various consumer goods, increasing investment opportunities and permitting direct financial transactions. North Korea’s moratorium on ballistic missiles lasted until July 2006 when Pyongyang resumed the testing of several missiles, including its Taepodong-2 long-range ballistic missile.[xxiv]
  • After the breakdown of the Agreed Framework in January 2003, the U.S. entered into Six-Party Talks with China, Japan, North Korea, Russia and South Korea in August 2003 to try and alleviate the crisis. The fourth round of talks ended with a significant breakthrough in September 2005 when North Korea signed a Joint Statement committing it to abandon “all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs and returning, at an early date, to the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons and to IAEA safeguards.”[xxv] Furthermore, the North “reaffirmed its commitment not to receive or deploy nuclear weapons in accordance with the 1992 Joint Declaration of the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, while affirming that there exist no nuclear weapons within its territory.”[xxvi] In response, the “U.S. “affirmed that it has no nuclear weapons on the Korean Peninsula and has no intention to attack or invade the D.P.R.K. [Democratic People’s Republic of Korea] with nuclear or conventional weapons.” The U.S. also pledged security assurances, a peace treaty, economic development assistance and a discussion on the provision of two civilian Light Water Reactors upon North Korea’s return to the NPT.[xxvii]
  • In February 2007, the fifth round of Six-Party talks concluded with the sides moving forward to implement the 2005 Joint Statement. Pyongyang agreed to disable its nuclear facilities and allow IAEA inspectors into its nuclear sites in exchange for the delivery of heavy fuel oil and North Korea’s removal from the U.S. State Sponsors of Terrorism list.[xxviii] In July 2007, IAEA inspectors returned to North Korea and maintained a presence in the country until April 2009.[xxix] However, there were several disagreements throughout this time period over specific dates when sanctions would be lifted as well as precise monitoring procedures, ultimately resulting in the failure of the accord.[xxx] The last round of Six-Party Talks ended in December 2008 with a stalemate over verification measures. IAEA inspectors were expelled from North Korea in April 2009 and since that point, there has been minimal official contact between Washington and Pyongyang.[xxxi]
  • Upon assuming office, the Obama administration opened back channels with Pyongyang about its nuclear program. In February 2012, the two countries independently announced a “Leap Day Deal” where North Korea agreed to halt its nuclear operations, invite the IAEA back in to conduct inspections and suspend both its nuclear and ballistic missile tests in exchange for the U.S. providing North Korea with 240,000 metric tons of food aid.[xxxii] The deal fell apart, however, in March 2012 after North Korea reneged on its pledge and launched a satellite using banned ballistic missile technology.[xxxiii]
  • In December 2017, nearly one month after Pyongyang tested its Hwasong-15 ICMB, the United Nations Security Council imposed crippling sanctions on North Korea through the unanimous adoption of Resolution 2397.[xxxiv] The Resolution restricted a number of key imports into North Korea, such as crude oil, refined petroleum and industrial machinery, required the repatriation of North Korean workers abroad and reaffirmed a commitment to the Six-Party talks.[xxxv] Resulting economic hardship may have been a driving factor in Pyongyang’s recent political overtures with Seoul and Washington.
  • In lead-up to the February 2018 Olympics held in Pyeongchang, there was a substantial thawing of relations between North and South Korea. A month before the Olympics were scheduled to begin, North Korea announced that it would send an Olympic delegation to the games, and held its first high-level talks with South Korea in two years. The Olympics were attended by Kim Jong Un’s sister, Kim Yo Jong, and North and South Korean women hockey players also competed on a combined “Korea” team, gaining fans on both sides of the demilitarized zone.[xxxvi] Following the Olympics, Kim continued on his diplomatic surge, agreeing to meet with South Korean President Moon Jae-in in late April 2018 and with Trump in May 2018.[xxxvii] In March 2018, Kim hosted a South Korean delegation in Pyongyang, and traveled to China to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping during his first trip abroad as North Korea’s leader.[xxxviii]

Joseph DeTrani, former Special Envoy for Negotiations with North Korea

“North Korea wants the U.S. to accept it as a nuclear weapons state rather than commit to denuclearization. If Kim Jong Un is convinced that this will never happen, then he may revert to plan B: Get the U.S. to agree to a cap on the number of nuclear weapons the North can retain with the promise not to manufacture any additional fissile material or weapons. That would be a disaster and the President should reject that.”

Looking Ahead: Although there is much anticipation for the looming summit between Trump and Kim, both sides have articulated demands the other is almost sure to reject: Pyongyang wants the U.S. to agree to withdraw from South Korea and rescind its nuclear protection guarantee to its Asian allies, while Washington’s goal is for Pyongyang to denuclearize. A Trump-Kim meeting may push relations in a new direction as Trump is set to become the first sitting U.S. president to meet with the Kim regime, but also risks legitimizing North Korea’s dictatorial leader on the world stage.

Richard Boucher, former Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asia

“Meeting directly with Kim is not really a high stakes gamble. If the North balks at denuclearization, we can turn to friends and partners to increase sanctions. Willingness to meet shows to a skeptical world that we are ready literally to go the extra mile and offers us a chance to end the North’s incessant momentum towards possessing a nuclear intercontinental ballistic missile. A high-level start may be the only path to get the North to reverse course, but requires clear-eyed and unwavering determination.”

Bennett Seftel is the analyst who wrote this report. Follow him on Twitter @BennettSeftel.

[i] “North Korea: Nuclear.” Nuclear Threat Initiative, Dec. 2017,

[ii] “Yongbyon 5MWE Reactor.” Nuclear Threat Initiative, 30 Jan. 2017,

[iii] “North Korea: Nuclear.”

[iv] Nikitin, Mary Beth et. al. “Nuclear Negotiations with North Korea: In Brief.” Congressional Research Service, 4 Dec. 2017,

[v] “Joint Declaration of South and North Korea on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.” Nuclear Threat Initiative, 19 Feb. 1992,

[vi] Davenport, Kelsey. “Chronology of U.S.-North Korean Nuclear and Missile Diplomacy.” Arms Control Association, Mar. 2018,

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Nikitin. “Nuclear Negotiations with North Korea.”

[x] Sanger, David. “North Korea Says It Has A Program on Nuclear Arms.” The New York Times, 17 Oct. 2002,

[xi] Davenport. “Chronology of U.S.-North Korean Nuclear and Missile Diplomacy.”

[xii] Weaver, Lisa. “N. Korea ‘admits having nukes.’” CNN, 25 Apr. 2003,

[xiii] Faiola, Anthony. “N. Korea Declares Itself a Nuclear Power.” The Washington Post, 10 Feb. 2005,

[xiv] Park, Jun-Min. “North Korea Says Ballistic Missile Test Was ‘Successful.’” Time, 13 Feb. 2017,

[xv] Smith, Josh. “How North Korea’s latest ICBM test stacks up.” Reuters, 28 Nov. 2017,

[xvi] Ibid.

[xvii] Ibid.

[xviii] Ibid.

[xix] Sciutto, Jim et. al. “Trump promises North Korea ‘fire and fury’ over nuke threat.” CNN, 9 Aug. 2017,,

[xx] Baker, Peter and Rick Gladstone. “With Combative Style and Epithets, Trump Takes America First to the U.N.” The New York Times, 19 Sept. 2017,

[xxi] Sang-Hun, Choe. “Kim’s Rejoinder to Trump’s Rocket Man: ‘Mentally Deranged U.S. Dotard.’” The New York Times, 21 Sept. 2017,

[xxii]  Davenport. “Chronology of U.S.-North Korean Nuclear and Missile Diplomacy.”

[xxiii] Ibid.

[xxiv] Ibid.

[xxv] United States, Department of State. “Six-Party Talks, Beijing, China.” Bureau of East Asian and Pacific Affairs, 19 Sept. 2005,

[xxvi] Ibid.

[xxvii] Ibid.

[xxviii] Davenport. “Chronology of U.S.-North Korean Nuclear and Missile Diplomacy.”

[xxix] Ibid.

[xxx] Ibid.

[xxxi] Ibid.

[xxxii] Quinn, Andrew. “Insight: Obama’s North Korean leap of faith falls short.” Reuters, 30 Mar. 2012,

[xxxiii] Ibid.

[xxxiv] United Nations Security Council. “Non-proliferation/Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.” Security Council Resolutions, 22 Dec. 2017,

[xxxv] Ibid.

[xxxvi] Kim, Hyung-Jin. “Historic combined Korean women’s hockey team loses to Swiss in Olympic debut.” Chicago Tribune, 10 Feb. 2018,

[xxxvii] Sang-Hun, Choe. “North and South Korea Set a Date for Summit Meeting at Border.” The New York Times, 29 Mar. 2018,

[xxxviii] Perlez, Jane. “Kim Jong-un’s China Visit Strengthens His Hand in Nuclear Talks.” The New York Times, 28 Mar. 2018,


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