Behind North Korea’s dash to the nuclear finish line, a cold war push

Tensions arcing across the Pacific Ocean between North Korea and the United States have scaled fresh heights in recent days, with President Trump threatening “fire and fury like the world has never seen,” and Pyongyang responding by declaring its intent to prepare a missile assault on the waters around Guam.

Precipitating the verbal showdown was North Korea’s latest apparent breakthrough in its nuclear weapons program, which was just the most recent in a string of rapid advances that appear to have taken experts and analysts by surprise.

According to media reports Tuesday, the Defense Intelligence Agency has assessed that Pyongyang is now capable of sufficiently miniaturizing nuclear warheads so they can be affixed to intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). Word of that alarming development came less than two weeks after North Korea tested an ICBM that appeared capable of reaching the contiguous United States.

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How has it come to this? How has the most isolated nation on the planet – and one of the most heavily sanctioned – reached the point where it is on the brink of becoming a nuclear power and issuing threats to the world’s leading power that seemingly are no longer incredulous?

The seeds of North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs were sown amid the chaos of the Korean War, as Pyongyang found itself at the receiving end of nuclear threats from the United States. Collaboration on nuclear technology with the Soviet Union followed soon after, and an influx of Russian scientists to North Korea after the collapse of the Soviet Union deepened the foundation for Pyongyang’s development of nuclear weapons.

In more recent years, a mindset that embraces failure as an opportunity to learn, and a greater willingness to upset the West, have all contributed to a rapid acceleration in both the nuclear weapons and ballistic missile programs.

“The origins of North Korea’s nuclear program can be traced back to a reactor that the Soviet Union gave to North Korea,” says Melissa Hanham, a senior research associate in the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies in Monterey, Calif.


The Soviets’ IRT-2000 research reactor, procured by the Hermit Kingdom in 1962, was but a part of the nuclear cooperation between the two nations: North Korean nuclear specialists had already been spending time in the USSR, and…

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