Nuclear power in North Korea

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North Korea (officially the Democratic People's Republic of Korea) has been active in developing nuclear technology since the 1950s. Although the country currently has no operational power-generating nuclear reactor, efforts at developing its nuclear power sector continue. Moreover, North Korea is widely believed to have developed nuclear weapons; it conducted what are widely accepted to have been nuclear tests in 2006, 2009 and 2013.[1][2]


Early developments (1950s–1960s)[edit]

North Korea's nuclear program began under Kim Il-sung in the mid-1950s, when North Korean scientists started practical training courses at the Joint Institute for Nuclear Research in Dubna in the Soviet Union. There, they studied electronic physics radiochemistry, high-energy physics and other subjects. These efforts were initially focused on the peaceful use of atomic energy; Soviet-North Korean agreements of the time specifically emphasized the peaceful nature of bilateral cooperation in the nuclear sphere. An intergovermental agreement on cooperation in the field of atomic energy, signed in 1959, laid the foundation for joint nuclear activities between the Soviet Union and North Korea. On the basis of this agreement, the two countries signed the so-called "Series 9559" contracts, concerning matters such as the conduct of geological studies, the construction of a nuclear research center (called a "Furniture Factory" by the North Koreans), and the training of North Korean labor.[3]:15,29–31 Other North Korean scientists received their education in East Germany and China.[4]

North Korea's nuclear scientific and experimental infrastructure was built with Soviet technical assistance. Soviet specialists took part in the construction of the Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center, about 90 km north of Pyongyang.[3] An IRT-2000 pool-type research reactor was supplied by the Soviet Union for the center in 1963, and began operation in 1965.[5] After upgrades to the research reactor, the fuels now used are IRT-2M-type assemblies of 36% and 80% highly enriched uranium.[6][7] As the center has not received fresh fuel since Soviet times, this reactor is now only run occasionally to produce iodine-131 for thyroid cancer radiation therapy.[8]

Expansion of the program (1960s–1990s)[edit]

The 5 MWe experimental reactor built at Yongbyon between 1980 and 1985.

In the late 1960s, the North Korean government decided to accelerate the development of nuclear science and technology: new research institutes, laboratories and chairs were established nationwide. The initial goal of this decision was to create the basis for the development of a nuclear energy sector. At the fifth congress of the Workers' Party of Korea in 1970, and subsequently at the sixth congress in October 1980, delegates stressed the necessity of constructing "nuclear power plants on a large scale in order to sharply increase the generation of electrical power".

At the same time, the country's leadership took into account such factors as the absence of explored oil deposits in North Korea, and the impossibility of compensating for electric power shortages by means of hydroelectric and thermal energy power plants. In fact, droughts in 1975 and 1976 had severely undermined power production through hydroelectric plants which were estimated to provide for half of the electricity output.[9] This domestic energy crisis and Soviet refusal to export a nuclear power plant to the North might have played an important role in the North Korean decision to develop a independent nuclear program.Thus, plans were made for the development of a nuclear energy sector on the basis of gas-graphite reactors (which can be run on unenriched uranium), because the country possessed sufficient deposits of natural uranium, as well as substantial graphite deposits.[3]

During the 1970s the North Korean research became more independent. In 1974 North Korea upgraded its Soviet-supplied reactor to 8 MW, and in 1979 it began to build a second, indigenous research reactor in Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center. Parallel to the construction of this reactor an ore processing plant and a fuel rod fabrication plant were built.[10]

During the 1980s, the North Korean government realized that light-water reactors (LWRs) were better suited to producing large amounts of electricity, for which there was a growing requirement. During the Kim Il Sung-Chernenko Moscow summit in 1984, the construction of nuclear power plants in North Korea with Soviet aid was first broached. The Soviet Union promised to assist North Korea with nuclear technology and materials on the condition that North Korea would sign the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). In December 1985, North Korea signed the NPT, and in the same month North Korea and the Soviet Union signed in Moscow two inter-governmental agreements on technical-economic cooperation and on building atomic power plants in North Korea. In 1987 the Soviet Union began to conduct several feasibility studies to build three LWRs at Sinpo on North Korea's east coast.[11]

Simultaneously, efforts were made to accelerate North Korea's general scientific and technological development, particularly in the nuclear field. The March 1988 Plenum of the Central Committee of the WPK made a decision to elaborate a Three-Year Plan (valid from 1988 to 1990) for the increased financing of science and technology, identifying four main directions: electronics, thermo-technology, chemistry and metallurgy. This plan paid special attention to the developments of electronics, particularly integrated circuits, computer science, robotics, new materials and digital program control. In 1990, allocations for science constituted 3.8% of North Korea's national income, according to official figures.

After the demise of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia continued site selection fieldwork for the Sinpo LWR project. However, the North Koreans refused to pay for the work, and the project was effectively discontinued.[12][13]

Institute of Atomic Energy[edit]

The Institute of Atomic Energy (IAE) in Pyongyang was founded in 1985, initially to house a 20 MeV cyclotron and laboratories imported under an IAEA technical cooperation program from the Soviet Union. The vast majority of cyclotron usage is to produce gallium-66 for liver and breast cancer treatment. The IAE has grown and now has three purposes: research, applying atomic energy to medicine and industry, and providing experimental facilities for nuclear studies students, particularly from Kim Il-sung University and Kim Chaek University of Technology.[8]

Denuclearization pledges[edit]

In 1994, North Korea signed the U.S.-North Korea Agreed Framework with the United States. North Korea thereby agreed to end its graphite-moderated nuclear reactor program, including the construction of a 200 MWe power reactor at Taechon, in exchange for the construction of two 1000-MWe light-water reactors at Kumho. Construction of these was started in 2000 by the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization, but was suspended in November 2003. Under the Six-Party Talks held on 19 September 2005, North Korea pledged to end all its nuclear programs and return to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, submitting to international inspections in return for benefits including energy aid and normalization of relations with Japan and the United States.

An empty machine shop in the then-disabled fuel fabrication facility at Yongbyon in 2008.

On 25 June 2008, it was announced that North Korea was to end its nuclear program; its nuclear declaration was to be handed over to China in Beijing on 26 June 2008. The nuclear devices that North Korea already had, however, were to be handed over at a later date. Earlier, on 23 June, North Korea stated that it had begun to dismantle its nuclear program and declared that it would turn over all of its plans to the international community.[14]

In 2009, Siegfried Hecker, the co-director of the Stanford University Center for International Security and Cooperation, said that "prior to its April rocket launch, North Korea had discharged approximately 6,100 of the 8,000 fuel rods from its 5-megawatt reactor to the cooling pool, but disablement slowed to a crawl of 15 fuel rods/week, dragging out the projected completion of fuel unloading well into 2011."[15]

Despite these apparent shutdown efforts, North Korea's nuclear tests in 2006, 2009 and 2013 have called into question its denuclearization commitment.[2] In April 2013, amid rising tensions with the West, North Korea stated that it would restart the mothballed Yongbyon facility and resume production of weapons-grade plutonium.[16]

Nuclear fusion claims[edit]

In May 2010, North Korea's state newspaper, Rodong Sinmun, announced in an article that North Korea had successfully carried out a nuclear fusion reaction. The aforementioned article, referring to the alleged test as "a great event that demonstrated the rapidly developing cutting-edge science and technology of the DPRK", also made mention of efforts by North Korean scientists to develop "safe and environment-friendly new energy", and made no mention of plans to use fusion technology in its nuclear weapons program.[17] The claim was greeted with skepticism, as sustainable fusion power has yet to be achieved by any other country, despite ongoing efforts such as the international ITER project.

Indigenous light water reactor development[edit]

In November 2010, a group of non-governmental U.S. experts reported that they had visited North Korea’s Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center, where they were shown an experimental 25-to-30 MWe light water reactor in the early stages of construction, and a 2,000-gas centrifuge uranium enrichment plant, which was said to be producing low enriched uranium (LEU) fuel for the reactor. Construction of the uranium enrichment plant reportedly began in April 2009, and the initial target date for operational commencement for the reactor was 2012.[18] In November 2011, commercial satellite imagery indicated that construction of the reactor was progressing rapidly.[19]

Nuclear weapons program[edit]

Following the 1958 U.S. deployment of tactical nuclear weapons in South Korea, the North Korean government asked both the Soviet Union and China for help in developing nuclear weapons, but was refused by both. However, the Soviet Union agreed to help North Korea develop a peaceful nuclear energy program, including the training of nuclear scientists.[20] The North Korean government consequently sought to increase its research capacity in fields such as nuclear physics, energy, and radiochemistry. The Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Research Center, the Nuclear Energy Research Institute, and the Radiological Institute were some of the organizations established during this period. In addition, a department of Nuclear Physics was opened at Pyongyang State University, and a nuclear reactor technology chair was opened at the Kimchaek Polytechnic University. A Soviet-made research cyclotron was installed at Kim Il-sung University in Pyongyang, and an industrial cyclotron was installed at a facility in one of Pyongyang's suburbs.[21]

Eventually this technology base developed into a clandestine nuclear weapons program, leading to the 2006 and 2009 nuclear tests. In 2009, it was estimated that North Korea had up to ten functional nuclear warheads.[22][23][24][25] After the death of Kim Jong-il in December 2011, the IAEA announced its readiness to return nuclear inspectors to North Korea, from which they were expelled in 2009, as soon as an agreement could be reached on steps towards denuclearization.[26] Nonetheless, in early 2013, North Korea pledged to conduct more nuclear tests in the near future,[1] and its third nuclear test took place in February 2013.[2]


Control over the development of the nuclear energy sector is exercised by the Ministry of Atomic Energy. The alleged military nuclear program is exercised by the Ministry of Armed Forces. Nuclear research institutes are supervised by the State Committee on Science and Technology.

Key nuclear organizations[edit]

The North Korean Institute of Physics was founded in 1952. The various departments originally created within the Institute of Physics later served as the basis for several independent research centers, including the Institute of Atomic Physics, the Institute of Semiconductors and the Institute of Mathematics. A further reorganization of scientific research activities was carried out in the 1970s, during which the majority of North Korea's nuclear research institutes were transferred from Pyongyang to the city of Pyonsong, 50 kilometres (31 mi) from the capital, and combined into a single scientific center.

External links[edit]


  1. ^ a b "North Korea 'plans third nuclear test'". BBC. 24 January 2013. Retrieved 24 January 2013. 
  2. ^ a b c "North Korea nuclear test takes place". The Guardian. 12 February 2013. Retrieved 12 February 2013. 
  3. ^ a b c James Clay Moltz and Alexandre Y. Mansourov (eds.): The North Korean Nuclear Program. Routledge, 2000. ISBN 0-415-92369-7
  4. ^ Oleg V. Davidov, “Russia’s Position towards North Korea’s Nuclear Development"
  5. ^ "Research Reactor Details - IRT-DPRK". International Atomic Energy Agency. 1996-07-30. Retrieved 2007-02-14. 
  6. ^ Siegfried S. Hecker (14 March 2008). Report of Visit to North Korea to Senate Foreign Relations Committee (Report). Center for International Security and Cooperation, Stanford University. Retrieved 23 November 2010.
  7. ^ "DPRK - Nuclear Weapons Program". Retrieved 23 November 2010. 
  8. ^ a b David Albright (19 March 2007). Phased International Cooperation with North Korea’s Civil Nuclear Programs (Report). Institute for Science and International Security. Retrieved 23 November 2010.
  9. ^ Template:Cite diplomatic document
  10. ^
  11. ^ Oleg V. Davidov. “Russia’s Position towards North Korea’s Nuclear Development".
  12. ^ Alexander Zhebin, “A Political History of Soviet-North Korean Nuclear Cooperation,” in James Clay Moltz and Alexandre Y. Mansourov
  13. ^ Siegfried S. Hecker, Sean C. Lee, Chaim Braun (Summer 2010). "North Korea's Choice: Bombs Over Electricity". The Bridge (National Academy of Engineering) 40 (2): 5–12. Retrieved 5 March 2011. 
  14. ^ "Landmark NKorea nuclear declaration expected Thursday". AFP via Google. 23 June 2008. Retrieved 4 April 2013. 
  15. ^ Hecker, Siegfried (2009-05-12). "The risks of North Korea's nuclear restart". Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. Retrieved 2009-05-27. 
  16. ^ "North Korea to restart Yongbyon nuclear reactor". The Guardian. 2 April 2013. Retrieved 4 April 2013. 
  17. ^ "North Korea claims nuclear fusion success". AFP via The Australian. 12 May 2010. Retrieved 8 March 2013.
  18. ^ Siegfried S. Hecker (20 November 2010). A Return Trip to North Korea’s Yongbyon Nuclear Complex (Report). Center for International Security and Cooperation, Stanford University. Retrieved 21 November 2010.
  19. ^ "North Korea Makes Significant Progress in Building New Experimental Light Water Reactor (ELWR)". 38 North, School of Advanced International Studies. Johns Hopkins University. 18 November 2011. Retrieved 18 November 2011. 
  20. ^ Lee Jae-Bong (December 15, 2008 (Korean) February 17, 2009 (English)). U.S. Deployment of Nuclear Weapons in 1950s South Korea & North Korea's Nuclear Development: Toward Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula (English version). The Asia-Pacific Journal. Retrieved April 4, 2012. 
  21. ^ "Nuclear Weapons Program". Korea North: Energy Policy, Laws and Regulation Handbook, Volume 1. International Business Publications via Google Books. Retrieved 2 February 2013. 
  22. ^ "AP News: Expert Says North Korea has Several Nukes". March 2009. Retrieved 9 October 2012.
  23. ^ DPRK Nuclear Weapons Program. Retrieved 8 March 2013.
  24. ^ "Estimates of North Korea’s Possible Nuclear Stockpile". Jon Wolfsthal. Carnegie Endowment. May 11, 2005.
  25. ^ North Korea’s nuclear program (2005). Published in The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.
  26. ^ "IAEA wants to redeploy nuclear inspectors in North Korea: report". Reuters. 20 December 2011. Retrieved 2011-12-24.