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Scholars Analyze Papers Showing North Korea's Nuclear Ambitions

  • Leta Fincher

Recently released documents from former Soviet bloc countries show that North Korea has been trying to acquire nuclear weapons for the past four decades. U.S. historians say the papers shed light on North Korea's preoccupation with its security.

Scholars analyzing the documents say that North Korea began asking its Communist allies as early as the 1960s for nuclear technology to build weapons.

"You see them over and over and over going to their allies with requests for technology, for expertise, for particular bits of equipment that they needed to develop weapons and their allies turning them down," said Kathryn Weathersby, who coordinates the Woodrow Wilson International Center's Korea Initiative, which has been translating the papers.

Dr. Weathersby says documents obtained through the center's Cold War International History Project do not prove that North Korea acquired nuclear weapons. But she says papers from Hungary, the former Soviet Union, East Germany and China show that North Korea has long been preoccupied with protecting itself from attack.

"It's in terms of--we face American forces just across our border; they are hostile to us; eventually we will have to fight them, along with the puppet South Korean forces, as they call them. This is part of what we need to protect ourselves," she said.

Dr. Weathersby says the documents depict a series of experiences showing the North Koreans that they were unable to rely on their allies.

During the Korean War of 1950 to 1953, U.S. bombing destroyed much of North Korea's infrastructure. But Pyongyang's giant ally, the Soviet Union, refused to prevent the bombing for fear of being drawn into a confrontation with the United States.

In the early 1960s, Dr. Weathersby says North Korea believed it needed to develop nuclear weapons to prevent its regime from being destroyed. A 1962 Russian document shows North Korea objecting to a Soviet proposal for nuclear nonproliferation.

By the 1980s, Dr. Weathersby says North Korea had realized the deterrent ability of nuclear weapons. She points to a 1986 conversation recorded between East German leader Erich Honecker and North Korean leader Kim Il-Sung.

"At one point, Kim turned to the issue of South Korea and said, we know we can't attack South Korea. The Americans have two-thousand nuclear weapons and it would take only one or two to destroy North Korea," she said.

Some scholars say that as a small country bordering two giant countries--China and the former Soviet Union, North Korea developed survival mechanisms that endure today.

James Goodby is a public policy scholar at the Wilson Center. He says, "More recent history of the Cold War period tells us that that survival mechanism has been working and is still working. I think it helps to explain the difficulties we're having in negotiating an end to the nuclear weapons program of Kim Jong-Il."

Ambassador Goodby argues that Washington should find a different way to negotiate with Pyongyang over its nuclear ambitions, by addressing North Korea's historical concern for its security. The United States has discouraged any compromise until Pyongyang agrees to dismantle its nuclear programs.

The Bush administration has also ruled out bilateral talks with North Korea, preferring six-party negotiations including South Korea, China, Russia and Japan. Those talks were last held in June.

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