In order to answer this question we have to dig back a couple of years. It is important to remember that this is something we have been dealing with since 1989 when satellite photos indicate new construction at Yongbyon which leads U.S. intelligence analysts to believe that North Korea is in the early stages of building a nuclear weapon. North Korea signed on to the NPT (Non-Proliferation Treaty) in 1985 but had yet to allow international teams to inspect its nuclear facilities. Inspectors are not on the ground in North Korea until some time in 1992 however they are quickly rebuffed and within a year Hans Blix admits that the inspectors cannot assure the rest of the world that North Korea has suspended its nuclear programs.
North Korea has had a nuclear power program since 1965 when the Soviet Union assembled a IRT-2M research reactor in Yongbyon. By 1980 the North Koreans had begun construction on a 5MWe reactor and by August of 1985 this reactor was on-line. Why did they wait until 1989 to start a nuclear arms program?
Of course the argument could be made that they had not waited at all and have been working on atomic weapons all along. I believe if this were the case, or rather if they had been making a serious effort before 1989, we would have heard about it by now therefore I feel safe making the assumption that any nuclear program in the country before 1989 was not a serious, concerted effort. This brings us back to the question of why wait until 1989? They had the material and, presumably, the knowledge in place since 1985 to begin a program.
I believe the answer lies in events that were taking place on the other side of the world. With Mikhail Gorbachev’s ascension to the post of General Secretary of the Central Party of the Soviet Union the world began to see a radical shift in the balance of power which found its ultimate expression in November of 1989 when the Berlin Wall was torn down. What this indicated was that the Soviet’s, the primary patrons of communist states around the world including North Korea, were turning their eyes inward to deal with their internal problems. This effort would ultimately “fail” resulting in the dissolution of the Soviet Union a mere two years later. This retreat from the world left several states in a state of limbo, notably North Korea.
Why was the Soviet Union so important to North Korea, particularly considering the close ties they have had with China? According to Don Oberdorfer’s book The Two Koreas the regime in Pyongyang became very adept at playing China and the Soviet Union off of each other after the Sino-Soviet split. This gave North Korea a degree of power in the region that was completely divorced from any economic or other considerations. They were able to provide the Soviets with information or not provide the Soviets with information and this made them powerful. Therefore in the years from 1989 to 1991, not only did they lose the financial support provided by the Soviet Union, but they were reduced to a Chinese client state, a geopolitical reality which terrified the regime in Pyongyang.
Ultimately North Korea wants to be our “friend” so they can continue the game they have played since the late ‘50s however instead of pitting Moscow against Beijing, they want to pit Washington against Beijing. Still unsure? Read this quote from an unnamed North Korean official:
It would be good for the United States to have us as a neutral buffer state in this dangerous area. Who knows, perhaps there are ways in which the United States could benefit from our ports and out intelligence if we become friends.