How North Korea Got the Bomb

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The United States and the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) Wednesday reached an agreement over an issue that has long created a diplomatic impasse between the two countries: the DPRK's controversial nuclear program.

Under the terms of the agreement, North Korea will grant access to IAEA inspectors to its nuclear facilities, stop uranium enrichment and no longer test fire long-range ballistic missiles. In exchange, the North Koreans will receive a substantial food aid package from the United States.

Although similar agreements have been reached in past, the North Koreans have continued to pursue their nuclear ambitions. Policymakers and diplomats who helped broker the deal, however, are optimistic that North Korea, with Kim Jong Un recently installed as its new head of state, will honor the agreement this time around.

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Wednesday's announcement might be the first step on the long road to disarmament talks. But how did North Korea, a poor nation with a stagnant industrial sector, become a nuclear power in the first place?

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North Korea officially announced its nuclear weapons program in 2002. The hermit kingdom then conducted its first nuclear test four years later on Oct. 9, 2006, when it detonated a device with a yield of less than one kiloton, according to the Federation of American Scientists.

The kingdom's interest in nuclear technology began long before that detonation, however.

As early as 1956, Kim Il Sung, the founder of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, pursued nuclear technology by working with Soviet and Chinese allies. Six years later, North Korea had a nuclear research facility built about 60 miles outside of Pyongyang in Yongbyon, North Korea. In 1967, the reactor went online with the help of the Soviets.

The North Koreans maintained their technology for research purposes for refining and stockpiling nuclear fuel throughout the remainder of the 1960s and 1970s. In 1977, they even permitted International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors to monitor the Yongbyon reactor the North Koreans already had online.

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It wasn't until the 1980s that the North Koreans began to try to weaponize their nuclear technology. At the same time, they appeared to be taking a public posture toward disarmament.

Although North Korea signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 1985, it was simultaneously developing long-range missile technology in the mid-1980s and built another reactor that enriched plutonium by 1986.

The economic collapse and fall of the Soviet Union helped contribute to North Korea's shifting nuclear policy. As the U.S. State Department notes in its profile of North Korea, the fall of its Communist allies, which provided the DPRK with financial support, caused the North Korean economy to sharply decline. The kingdom also began to become more isolated as its ideological allies gradually faded.

An agreement between North and South Korea in 1992 raised hopes that the DPRK would cease its nuclear ambitions after both sides agreed to the Joint Declaration for a Non-Nuclear Korean Peninsula. The North Koreans even agreed to let IAEA inspectors into their nuclear sites, only to refuse them access over the coming years.

In 1993, North Korea announced its intention of withdrawing from the Non-Proliferation Treaty, nearly leading the Clinton administration to respond with a military attack on the DPRK's nuclear sites.

With tensions rising, U.S. and North Korean officials began negotiations in 1993, which led what was called the Agreed Framework in 1994. By this time, Kim Il Song had died and his son, Kim Jong Il, had taken over. In exchange for abandoning its nuclear weapons program, the United States would provide the North Koreans with nuclear reactors that would produce lower-grade plutonium that couldn't be weaponized.

Despite the agreement, and floods and famine gripping North Korea in the mid- to late-1990s, the country continued developing its medium- to long-range missile technology. The DPRK, claiming they were launching a satellite, even test-fired a rocket that flew over Japan and into the Pacific Ocean.

In 2002, the DPRK acknowledged the existence of its weapons program, which was in violation of its agreement with the United States. The following year the DPRK formally withdrew from the NPT and began producing weapons-grade plutonium from its reactors once again.

Diplomacy, foreign aid and sanctions all proved fruitless in trying to bring North Korea to officially stop pursuing nuclear weapons. By mid-2006, the DPRK has produced as much as 60 kilograms (27.3 pounds) of plutonium fuel, enough to create as many as 13 nuclear bombs. And that same year, the North Koreans finally tested one of them.

Photo credit: Corbis Images