North Korea's pervasive news presence has revealed how little most Americans really know about North Korea and how it became the globe-threatening regime it is today. How did North Korea get nuclear weapons, and why did North Korea develop nuclear weapons in the first place? The answers to those questions might surprise you. North Korea's nuclear weapon history is tied up in foreign policy and, ultimately, trying to form an alliance with the United States.
The US has had a vested interest in Korea dating back to the division of the peninsula following World War II. The US relationship with the North has always depended greatly on the leaders of that state - who all come from the same family and rival each other in their outlandish characteristics and unpredictable temperaments. But when it comes to weapons, blatant nuclear threats are a relatively recent development. North Korea's intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) are weapons not usually used in warfare (yet), and they actually exist thanks to numerous failed attempts to gain American approval.
When the Soviet Union broke up in 1991, communism took a big hit. Communist countries like North Korea and Cuba were left without one of their their biggest allies. The leader of North Korea, Kim Il-sung, attempted to maintain diplomatic and economic relations with China and the new Russian government but he knew that his country was more isolated than ever before.
By the mid-1990s, North Korea was one of the few holdover communist relics, especially after Deng Xiaopeng opened China up to contact with the outside world during the 1980s. Kim Il-sung knew that he needed to get the attention and, in the end, establish good relations with the United States, the only remaining global superpower. He also knew North Korea was losing their biggest supplier of power and supplies, and that they'd have to find a way to hold their own with the United States.
Kim Il-sung and his successor Kim Jong-il took extreme measures to both protect themselves and find a way to bargain with the United States. They had started developing nuclear weapons with supplies and technology from the Soviet Union in the days following the Korean War. Then in 1994, they threatened to leave the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). The NPT was initiated in 1968 to limit the spread of nuclear technology and nuclear weapons, although North Korea didn't sign it until 1985. In 1993, North Korea threatened to leave the treaty but they stayed in it. The following year, they negotiated an agreement with the United States to get rid of their old nuclear technology in exchange for assistance in building "light-water nuclear reactors" which would allegedly be used only for nuclear energy, not nuclear weapons.
During the negotiations in 1994, Kim Il-sung told former President Jimmy Carter, who oversaw the talks, that he knew North Korea could never rival the US when it came to nuclear capability. Threats by North Korea were "suicidal," nonetheless, North Korea continued to feel threatened by the United States.
The Agreed Framework of 1994 between the US and North Korea was a step forward in the countries' relationship. In addition to pledging assistance to help North Korea build water reactors, the US pledged to ease up economic sanctions and import oil. By 1996, however, a newly Republican Congress had delayed funds and other promises made to North Korea. In response, North Korea reactivated its nuclear reactors in 1998.
US government officials argue that North Korea pulled back from the agreement in 1995 when the country started to work with uranium. Technically, the NPT discussed plutonium and not uranium, so North Korea asserted they had done nothing wrong.