North Korea’s Atomic March

North Korea says it plans to carry out a nuclear weapons test, and U.S. officials say the test may come “as early as this weekend.”

Last night, the U.N. Security Council issued a joint statement saying a nuclear test would “jeopardize peace, stability and security in the region and beyond” and “bring universal condemnation by the international community.”

It’s important to remember how we got here. Below, a basic timeline of the build-up of North Korea’s nuclear weapons. As the timeline clearly shows, virtually all of the growth of North Korea’s nuclear program has occured under conservative administrations known for their supposed “strength” on defense:



Mid-1980s: First signs of North Korea nuclear program detected by US intelligence. [Link]

1986: North Korea produces plutonium in reactor. [Link]


1991: US begins talks with North Korea to end to nuclear program. [Link]

1992: North Korea has separated an estimated 0–10kg of weapons-grade plutonium, enough for 1 to 2 bombs.


1993: North Korea announces it will leave nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty; US prepares to attack nuclear sites. [Link, Link]

1994: Clinton Administration reaches Agreed Framework, North Korea freezes nuclear production for the next eight years. [Link]

August 1998: North Korea tests medium-range “Taep’o-dong-1” missile. [Link]

December 1998: North Korea warns they will test another missile, but pressure from US dissuades them. [Link]

September 1999: Pyongyang agrees to long-range missile moratorium. [Link]

October 2000: Secretary of State Madeleine Albright is highest ranking US official to ever meet with Kim Jong Il.


March 6, 2001: Secretary of State Colin Powell says the administration will “pick up where President Clinton left off.” [Link]

March 7, 2001: President Bush undercuts Powell, declares negotiations will take on a different tone. [Link]

January 2002: Bush labels North Korea a member of the “Axis of Evil.” [Link]

March 2003: United States invades Iraq. [Link]

April 2003: North Korea withdraws from the Non-Proliferation Treaty; soon thereafter, they restart their reactor. [Link]

April 2005: North Korea appears to unload nuclear reactor with up to another 15 kg of weapons-grade plutonium. [Link]

September 19, 2005: In six-party talks North Korea agrees to abandon its nuclear program in exchange for incentives package. [Link]

September 19, 2005: US labels bank that provides financial support for North Korean Government Agencies as “money laundering concern.” Bank freezes North Korean assets; causes collapse of September 2005 agreement. [Link]

June 2006: North Korea is believed to have now produced enough plutonium for 4 to 13 nuclear bombs. [Link]

July 2006: North Korea tests missiles: one medium-range and five short-range. Medium-range “Taep’o-dong-2 fails. [Link]

October 3, 2006: Kim Jong Il announces North Korea plans to test nuclear weapons.

October 4, 2006: North Korea asserts that nuclear test is a measure to “bolstering its nuclear deterrent as a self-defense measure.” [Link]

Mid-2008: If North Korea unloads another batch of fuel, it may have enough nuclear material for 8 to 17 nuclear bombs. [Link]

— Rachel Weise