North Korea, the U.S., and the Nuclear Threat

July 23, 2011

Readings and activities on the history of the U.S.-North Korea relationship & the current tension over nuclear weapons.

To the Teacher: The discovery that North Korea has an active nuclear weapons program in violation of both its 1994 agreement with the U.S. and its signature on the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) is a problem for the US and its allies, South Korea and Japan. North Korea's announcement on January 10, 2003 that it intends to withdraw from the NPT will have serious implications for international arms control. The nuclear crisis on the Korean peninsula also raises questions about the US commitment to the NPT. The following two lessons provide background and activities on these issues.



Distribute Student Reading 1 for students to read and then to discuss.
Student Reading l:

The U.S.-North Korea Conflict

North Korea is about the size of Mississippi with a population of just over 21 million people. It is a very poor country. Yet North Korea is a country condemned by President Bush in his January 19, 2002 State of the Union address because it has "a regime arming with missiles and weapons of mass destruction while starving its citizens." States like North Korea (and Iran and Iraq), the President said, "constitute an axis of evil" and "threaten the peace of the world."
North Korea's official name is the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. But despite the use of the term "democratic," its government is highly centralized under the dictatorial leadership of Kim Jong Il. Although the country is poor and relatively small, North Korea has the fourth largest army in the world, more than one million soldiers, and has developed and tested ballistic missiles. And for some time it has been secretly developing a nuclear weapons program which it admitted to in October 2002 when it was confronted with American intelligence data.
As a nation, North Korea is the product of what was supposed to have been a temporary division of the Korean peninsula into two occupation zones after World War II—one in the north occupied by the Soviet Union, in the south by the United States. But over the years, the division became fixed. The Korean War (1950-1953) pitted South Korea and a United Nations coalition led by the United States on one side against North Korea and China with support from the Soviet Union. While South Korea became a prosperous nation, North Korea did not. Since the collapse of its chief supporter, the Soviet Union, North Korea has suffered from chronic food shortages and become even poorer than it was.
In the 1980s and 1990s North Korea began a nuclear weapons program that brought to a near-boil its already poor relations with the United States. This program was at Yongbyon, where North Korea had a nuclear reactor to produce power that was also a source of fuel for a nuclear weapons project. In addition, North Korea was building two larger reactors that could potentially extract plutonium from reactor waste and produce enough fuel for hundreds of nuclear weapons.
A deal was arranged with the Clinton administration that had two basic points:
1) North Korea committed itself to stopping its nuclear weapons work and to permitting regular international monitoring of its nuclear site .
2) The US, South Korea, Japan, and some other nations agreed, in exchange, to provide North Korea with nuclear reactors to provide that country with badly needed electric power. While the reactors were being built, the US and its allies pledged to supply North Korea with free fuel oil.
President Clinton hailed the agreement, saying it "will help achieve a longstanding and vital American objective—an end to the threat of nuclear proliferation on the Korean Peninsula."
But critics immediately attacked the accord because, in their view, it contained loopholes that could enable North Korea to continue its nuclear weapons program secretly. One loophole is that even nuclear reactors whose purpose is production of energy produce nuclear waste that can be reprocessed for use in developing nuclear weapons.
The Bush administration was also dissatisfied with the agreement, demanding of North Korea stricter inspections and a reduction of its army, most of which is massed near the border with South Korea. Last fall, after North Korea admitted that it had an active nuclear weapons program, President Bush scrapped the accord and stopped US shipments of fuel oil to North Korea. The US also urged its allies, Japan and South Korea, to pressure North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons plans. The Bush administration announced that it would not negotiate anything with North Korea until it does abandon those plans.
North Korea has declared that the Bush administration's "axis of evil" charge and its policy of preemptive attacks (like the one threatened on Iraq) amounts to a "declaration of war" that threatens North Korea's existence. It regards the US attitude as "unilateral and highhanded," and argues that it was the US that violated the 1994 agreement by delaying the establishment of normal relations with North Korea and the completion of the promised nuclear power plants.
North Korea also says that differences can be negotiated. If the US ends its "hostile policy" and does not hinder North Korea's economic development, they say, "our government will resolve all US security concerns through the talks." The US has maintained economic sanctions against North Korea.
The United Nations issued the following response through Secretary General Kofi Annan: "The Secretary-General regrets the announcement by the Government of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea of its withdrawal from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and strongly urges reconsideration of this decision. The NPT is the linchpin of the nuclear nonproliferation and disarmament regime and with 188 states parties is the most widely subscribed to multilateral treaty in this area. No state party to the NPT has ever withdrawn from the treaty in the 33 years since its entry into force." (For the full statement, go to
Writes New York Times analyst Howard French: "North Korea desperately needs better relations with Japan and the United States because the former has long promised to provide heavy development assistance once relations are normalized, while the latter controls many of the international financial institutions, whose cooperation is indispensable to North Korea's reentry into the global economy." (New York Times, 10/21/02)
The Bush administration's response to North Korea is very different from its response to Iraq, another nation Bush has included in his "axis of evil." The President has repeatedly threatened that if Iraq does not eliminate its weapons of mass destruction, the US will attack Iraq preemptively. But while the evidence of a nuclear weapons program in North Korea is far stronger than in Iraq, the US is not threatening an attack on that country. Instead, it is working for a diplomatic solution.
Among the major reasons for this contrasting approach:
  • North Korea has an army of close to a million near its border with South Korea, an important US ally
  • North Korean forces are within artillery range of the South Korean capital Seoul, only 30 or so miles away
  • the North Korean army also threatens the 37,000 US troops in South Korea
  • North Korea's ballistic missile program probably has the capacity to strike another US ally in the region, Japan
  • North Korea does not have, as Iraq does, 10 percent of the world's known oil reserves.
With a crisis developing between North Korea and the US, President Bush announced a major change in US policy. On January 14, 2003, he said that if North Korea abandoned its nuclear weapons program, the US would consider providing it with economic and energy aid and, in time, offer diplomatic and security agreements. He has said repeatedly that he expects a "peaceful" settlement and now appears willing to negotiate with North Korea.
For Discussion
1) Consider first any student questions about the issues raised by the reading.
2) Why did President Bush include North Korea in what he calls an "axis of evil"?
3) What specific criticisms does the US have of North Korea?
4) What are North Korea's criticisms of the US?
5) What do you think might be the basis of a settlement between the two countries?


Read Student Reading 2 carefully, then:
1) write down and bring to class the two or three best questions you can think of which, if answered well, would help you understand how well the US is complying with its commitment to the Nonproliferation Treaty and
2) prepare to offer an opinion, with reasons, on whether the US is in compliance with the NPT.
Student Reading 2:

Nuclear Proliferation

North Korea's departure from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty will have serious implications for arms control. This treaty came into force in 1970 and was signed by North Korea in 1985.
The basic provisions of the treaty are designed to:
prevent the spread of nuclear weapons by committing non-nuclear weapons nations not to develop them
promote the peaceful uses of nuclear energy through full cooperation between nuclear and non-nuclear countries
express an agreement that the treaty should lead to nuclear and complete disarmament
Article VI is particularly important. It says:
"Each of the Parties to the Treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control."
In May 2000 after a month-long conference to review the treaty, the five original nuclear weapons powers—the US, Russia, Britain, France and China—strengthened their pledge of 30 years earlier by committing to "an unequivocal undertaking to accomplish the total elimination of nuclear arsenals."
l88 nations have signed the NPT. Three that have not are India, Pakistan, and Israel.
Now, says an American official, "The US is calling on North Korea to comply with all of its commitments under the Nonproliferation Treaty and to eliminate its nuclear weapons program in a verifiable manner."
The Bush administration says it is moving to eliminate its nuclear weapons, citing the Treaty of Moscow signed by President Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin on May 24, 2002. The treaty calls for each country, the two biggest nuclear weapons powers in the world, to reduce their strategic warheads from about 6,000 to between 2,200 and 1,700 by 2012. Neither country has to make cuts on a specific schedule. Either country can withdraw from the treaty with three months' notice. And neither country is required to destroy the nuclear warheads it decommissions—it may store as many as it wishes. The treaty does not require the elimination of either side's many tactical nuclear warheads. It does not include measures to verify whether both sides are complying with the agreement.
On the other hand, the Pentagon recently produced for the Bush administration a new report entitled "The Nuclear Posture Review." A portion of the report remains secret, but the rest was made public on March 10, 2002.
The report:
  • stresses that "Nuclear weapons play a critical role in the defense capabilities of the United States, its allies and friends"
  • emphasizes the need to develop new nuclear weapons that can penetrate deeply into the earth to destroy underground stores of enemy weapons of mass destruction, such as chemical and biological weapons
  • calls for better intelligence and targeting systems for potential nuclear weapons strikes
  • indicates that the US may need to resume testing to make new nuclear weapons and ensure the reliability of existing ones. (The US has refused to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty forbidding nuclear weapons testing but has voluntarily complied with it)
  • names North Korea, Iraq, Iran, Syria and Libya as nations that "have long-standing hostility toward the United States and its security partners"
  • names China and Russia as potential enemies
  • concludes that the US could face situations in which it might need to use nuclear weapons.
A critic of this report, author Jonathan Schell, writes, "Did the decision-makers in Washington reflect, when they gave themselves the right to launch nuclear attacks on the Middle East and elsewhere, that they might inspire those targeted to do likewise to us? Did they forget that there is no defense against nuclear arms and no rescue for those attacked by them?....No country is omnipotent. None are invulnerable. What the United States has done to others at Hiroshima and Nagasaki—and what we may yet do to others at Tehran and Tripoli—others can do to us." (The Nation, 4/1/02)
The US spends about $100 million a day to maintain its nuclear weapons.


A. For review:
1) Consider student questions. (For close examination of their effectiveness as questions, see the Doubting Game section of "Teaching Critical Thinking" on this website.)
2) What is the NPT? What does it require of non-nuclear weapons nations? Of nuclear weapons nations?
3) What are the major provisions of the Treaty of Moscow? How strict are its provisions?
4) What does The Nuclear Posture Review tell you about the US attitude toward nuclear weapons
B. Divide the class into groups of four to six students to answer and
discuss the following question:
Based on the information you have, would you say that the US is complying with its commitment to the NPT? Why or why not?
Have each group name a reporter to summarize its findings for the class.
C. Reports and discussion of them
If there is interest in pursuing this issue further, students might address their inquiries to President Bush, Secretary of State Powell or Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld, and search government websites for information. For example:, and For other points of view, students might check, and For background information on nuclear weapons and US policy, see "Nuclear Weapons Controversy" on this website.


The Nation 4/10/02
Newsweek 10/28/02
New York Times 3/10/02, 5/25/02, 10/17/02, 10/20/02, 10/21/02, l0/25/02, 10/26/02, 11/3/02, 11/4/02
US Department of State:
Common Dreams:
Global Security Institute:
Reaching Critical Will:
This lesson was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to: