State Sponsors: North Korea

State Sponsors: North Korea

North Korea’s recent nuclear program and recent nuclear test have resulted in on-going negotiations aimed at North Korea’s cooperation with the international community.

Last updated June 28, 2008 8:00 am (EST)

Current political and economic issues succinctly explained.

More on:

North Korea

Terrorism and Counterterrorism

Nonproliferation, Arms Control, and Disarmament

This publication is now archived.


Editor’s Note: On June 26, 2008, after Pyongyang handed over a declaration of its nuclear activities, President Bush said he intended to remove North Korea from the terrorism list within forty-five days.

North Korea, also known as the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK), is the world’s only unreconstructed Stalinist country. Under its current leader, Kim Jong-Il, North Korea maintains its border with South Korea as the most heavily fortified national boundary in the world. Human rights groups accuse North Korea’s government of a plethora of human rights violations. The DPRK is also cited on the U.S. State Department’s list of countries that sponsor terrorism and has been deemed by President Bush as a member of the “axis of evil.” On October 9, 2006, North Korea became a nuclear-weapon state, conducting its first nuclear test and raising global security concerns. In 2003, the United States along with China, Russia, Japan, and South Korea—countries with particular security concerns—established diplomatic negotiations with North Korea known as the Six-Party Talks. These ongoing talks led to an October 2007 North Korean pledge to release all information pertaining to its nuclear program and to disable all nuclear facilities under international supervision, though verification methods remain uncertain.

Support of Terrorist Activities

North Korea has not been associated with any acts of terrorism since 1987, when it was linked to the bombing of a Korean Airlines flight. However, Japan claims that North Korea bears responsibility for the abduction of several Japanese citizens, a sore point for Japan in the Six-Party Talks. North Korea’s admission to conducting a secret nuclear weapons program in violation of the Agreed Framework of 1994, which prohibited such programs, raises questions about other pledges Pyongyang offers. So, too, do North Korea’s alleged frequent sales of nuclear and ballistic missile technology. In connection with concessions made in the Six-Party Talks in late 2007, the U.S. State Department said it will “begin the process of removing the designation of the DPRK as a state-sponsor of terrorism.” Although many countries see North Korea’s potential to sell nuclear technology as a threat, the more imminent concern is North Korea’s own nuclear capabilities. Consequently, much international attention is focused on North Korea’s adherence to IAEA inspections and the dismantling of its nuclear arsenal.

Relationship with other State Sponsors of Terrorism

It has been reported that North Korea sold ballistic-missile technology to Iran and Syria, both of which are on the U.S. State department’s list of sponsors of terrorism, and Libya, which was removed from the list in 2006. North Korean missile technology has also been transferred to Pakistan and Yemen. The alleged missile sales represent a prime concern for the U.S.-led “war on terrorism,” expanding the range of receiving nations that could potentially deploy their own chemical, biological, or nuclear weapons. Yet the sales also generate much needed income for North Korea, allowing it to further its own military research and development. Following a September 2007 Israeli air strike in Syria, some analysts speculated that Pyongyang had sold nuclear material to Damascus, which Israel then discovered and destroyed.

Development of Nuclear Weapons Program

North Korea finished construction on its first nuclear reactor in 1987. With a capacity of five megawatts, it is capable of producing enough uranium fuel for the creation of one nuclear bomb each year. In 1984, construction began on two more powerful reactors—one fifty megawatts, the other two-hundred. When operational, it is estimated that these reactors would be able to produce roughly thirty bombs per year. Along with these reactors, North Korea also has created a reprocessing plant which serves to extract weapons grade plutonium from nuclear fuel rods from the reactors. It has been noted that North Korea’s reactors are not being used as power plants because satellite imagery shows that there are no electric power lines coming from these facilities. Roughly three thousand scientists are working on the country’s nuclear research and development projects, but experts say it is hard to estimate the rate at which these programs are developing.

North Korea’s nuclear facilities violate the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which the country signed in 1985 but backed out of in April 2003. They also violate the Agreed Framework of 1994, which North Korea denounced with its nuclear test.

Possession of Non-Nuclear WMDs

Many experts say North Korea has both chemical and biological weapons programs which range from the use of agents such as VX and Sarin to Anthrax and Botulin. The extent to which these agents have been weaponized is unknown as no internationally regulated inspections are conducted. The U.S. Department of Defense says that North Korea has stockpiles of chemical weapons and the capability to produce certain agents in mass quantities. North Korea has signed the Biological Toxin Weapons Convention (BTWC), which is a multilateral effort to ban the production of biological and chemical weapons. Yet this treaty doesn’t require systematic inspections. North Korea’s ambiguous statement in October 2002 about possessing weapons more powerful than nuclear weapons has led experts to interpret this as a declaration of possessing biological/chemical weapons. Although North Korea has signed the BTWC it has not signed the Chemical Weapons Convention, a more recent effort to ban the production of chemical weapons and also mandating inspections.

Nuclear Weapons Delivery Capability

North Korea has developed several missiles that can reach a target of up to 1,550 miles. The Nodong-1 missile is a short range missile capable of roughly 720 miles while the BM-25 is capable of 1,550 miles. It is not certain whether these missiles are in fact able to carry WMD payloads. Development has begun on a longer ranged ballistic missile Taepodong-2 which could theoretically hit a target as far as three thousand miles, almost three times the range of its predecessor, the Taepodong-1. Current North Korean missiles pose a threat to countries in East Asia, but with a completed Taepodong-2, this threat would broaden even to parts of the United States.’s Crisis Guide on the Korean Peninsula details the North Korean military arsenal.

More on:

North Korea

Terrorism and Counterterrorism

Nonproliferation, Arms Control, and Disarmament


Top Stories on CFR

Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

Steven Cook, the Eni Enrico Mattei senior fellow for Middle East and Africa studies at CFR, sits down with James M. Lindsay to discuss the collapse of the temporary ceasefire in Gaza and the future of the conflict between Israel and Hamas

Budget, Debt, and Deficits

After years of steadily increasing debt, federal spending has skyrocketed, taking U.S. debt to levels not seen since World War II.   

United States

Committed global action at every level of government, the economy, and society is needed to tackle such a complex, multifaceted challenge, and a growing awareness that time is running out should help to foster it at the UN Climate Change Conference in Dubai. But the real test will come after, when promises must be kept.