At a private luncheon in April 1994, North Korean founding leader Kim Il Sung told a gathering of diplomats and journalists that his country would “never have nuclear weapons.”
North Korea, he said had “neither the need to make nuclear weapons nor the will and ability to do so.”
The event had been set up by the Washington, D.C.-based Summit Council for World Peace, an association created by Rev. Moon Sun-myung of the Unification Church. Members included former heads of state, diplomats and experts working on global peace initiatives.
Kim Il Sung claimed at the luncheon that North Korea’s nuclear program was solely for the purpose of meeting the country’s energy needs.
But western intelligence sources and the International Atomic and Energy Agency (IAEA) were skeptical of his claims.
Mark Fitzpatrick, Director of the Non-Proliferation and Disarmament Programme at the International Institute for Strategic Studies, shared their disbelief.
“Mendacity has been a common feature of North Korean public discourse”, Fitzpatrick said, also citing that this pattern is in line with the behavior of other countries that were procuring nuclear weapons. “India for example insisted on an anti-nuclear policy up until the day it tested a nuclear weapon”, he said.
Among those in attendance at the 1994 meeting was Michael Breen, former Seoul correspondent for the Washington Times.
“My own belief is that North Korea intended all along to become a nuclear power and that (Kim) was lying,” Breen said.
The IAEA officially noted discrepancies between the configuration of a peaceful nuclear program and North Korea’s weapons-oriented nuclear facilities as early as two years prior to Kim Il Sung’s comments. They also concluded that North Korea had been actively producing plutonium up to three years earlier than they had previously admitted.
Western intelligence sources had for some time been convinced that North Korea’s nuclear program was solely for the purpose of acquiring nuclear weapons, with defector testimony suggesting research into the building of nuclear facilities may have begun under Kim Il Sung as far back as 1953, eventually expanded to become the well-known Yongbyong Nuclear Research Center in 1962.
North Korea had long claimed that Yonbyong was used solely for research into peaceful nuclear energy technologies.
But a North Korean defector who worked at the secretive Yongbyong Nuclear Research Center in the 1990s said that research for the peaceful use of nuclear energy was not on the agenda. She had experience working in the 304th research lab and said its facilities were, “the main center for nuclear weapons development as well as for chemical arms development.”
“The preponderance of the evidence indicates the goal clearly was nuclear weapons”, Fitzpatrick said.
He cites examples of overhead imagery taken in the 1980’s that show high explosive testing near Yonbyong, and reports that Pakistani nuclear engineer Abdul Qadeer Khan was selling enrichment enrichment information and technology, as known examples of North Korea’s attempts to acquire nuclear weapons.
Although many of the technologies involved in nuclear weapons can have dual uses such as for nuclear energy needs, Fitzpatrick points out that North Korea had not connected their 5 megawatt nuclear reactor at Yonbyong to the grid until immediately before nuclear inspectors were scheduled to arrive.
Given that intelligence services knew of the expanding nuclear infrastructure in North Korea for some time, the bold and very public claims made by Kim Il Sung were, to say the least, surprising.
The 1994 luncheon came at a low point in the North’s relations with both China and Russia, made obvious by the fact that only low-level officials from these countries attended his birthday celebrations on April 15, the day before the meeting.
Breen believes that this statement was Kim Il Sung’s way of reaching out to the U.S. and to President Bill Clinton.
“He was courting people with influence in Washington,” Breen said. “Since the collapse of the USSR (in 1991), North Korea had been reaching out to the U.S. for ties.”
“He may have been intending to let the nuclear program go if the U.S. developed ties and guaranteed North Korean security,” Breen added.
This seemed a possibility when former President Jimmy Carter visited North Korea on June 13 that year to successfully negotiate a “freeze” on the North’s nuclear program. Kim Il Sung died a month later but, following bilateral negotiations, the two countries signed the Agreed Framework putting in place the process for dismantling North Korea’s nuclear program.
This framework was never fully realized and, in October 2002, then-Assistant Secretary of State for Asian and Pacific Affairs James Kelly stated that a North Korean official had admitted that the DPRK had a fully functional uranium enrichment program in violation of the agreement. North Korea has since conducted three underground nuclear tests and nuclear negotiations have halted.
With a recent warming of inter-Korean relations, the U.S. announced today that a nuclear envoy would be travelling to South Korea, Japan and China in September. This follows a visit by China’s chief nuclear envoy, Wu Dawei, to North Korea on Monday.
But despite renewed hope for negotiations, many believe that a nuclear-armed North Korea is a reality that the world will have to live with.
“I don’t think there is any sign that their nuclear weapons are going to go away,” Fitzpatrick said, adding that “North Korea wants to be accepted as a nuclear-armed state”.
Despite Kim Il Sung’s claims to the contrary in 1994, the evidence suggests this was always the case.
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