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North Korea: From war to nuclear weapons

Lewis Sanders IV
September 3, 2017

Since 1948, North Korea has defied international norms to carve out its own place in the world. DW examines the country's controversial history and development of a nuclear program.

Picture showing North Korea founder Kim Il Sung and late leader Kim Jong Il
Image: Reuters/D. Sagolj

Founding of a nation: 1945-1950

Following the end of World War II, the Soviet Union and the US agreed to split the Korean Peninsula along the 38th parallel. US forces remained in the southern half following the surrender of Japan, while Soviet forces occupied the northern half.

Read more: What is China's role in the North Korean crisis?

In response to the South's declaration of statehood as the Republic of Korea, the Democratic People's Republic of Korea in 1948 declared itself a state with Kim Sung Il, a popular guerrilla commander, as its Soviet-designated leader.

Kim was later established as the leader of the Workers' Part of Korea, which consolidated power across the northern part of the peninsula. By 1949, statues of Kim were erected and people began calling him the "Great Leader."

The Korean War: 1950-1953

In 1950, with the backing of communist China and the Soviet Union, North Korean forces invaded the South, culminating in the capture of Seoul. The US responded by leading a UN military operation that drove communist forces north towards the Chinese border. Chinese troops joined the battle and pushed the UN forces south again.

The country was roughly divided along the aforementioned US-Soviet agreement. An armistice was signed on July 27, 1953. Technically, the war continues to this day since no peace treaty has been signed.

Nuclear comrades: 1956-1962

In 1956, the Soviet Union offered North Korean nuclear scientists basic knowledge to begin developing their own nuclear program. Three years later, Moscow and Pyongyang signed a nuclear cooperation agreement.

Read more: In North Korea, journalism emerges from lies

North Korea's Yongbyon Nuclear Scientific Researched Center opened, becoming the communist nation's premier nuclear facility. It reportedly produced the fissile material for the country's first nuclear weapon.

Missile development: 1976-1993

By most accounts, Egypt provided North Korea with Scud-B type missiles between 1976 and 1981. In 1984, Pyongyang produced and tested a native version of the Scud-B called the Hwasong-5.

One year later, North Korea became a signatory of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, North Korea lost its primary source of security and economic support from its founding. That did not stop the communist nation from going forward in 1993 with the launch of the Hwasong-7, a medium-range ballistic missile.

Infographic showing North Korea's missile ranges

Death of 'almighty god': 1994-2002

On July 8, 1994, North Korean leader Kim Il Sung died unexpectedly from a heart attack at the age of 82. His son, Kim Jong Il assumed power as supreme leader of North Korea shortly afterwards, marking a new era in its history

From 1994 to 1998, North Korea suffered a devastating famine and economic crisis known locally as the "Arduous March." Between 240,000 and 4 million people are estimated to have died from starvation or hunger-related illness during this period.

Read more: Increasingly desperate North Koreans defect to South Korea

North Korea pledged in 1999 to enact a moratorium on missile tests, and later pledged in 2002 to extend it beyond 2003.

'Axis of evil': 2002-2006

In 2002, US President George W. Bush included North Korea in his "axis of evil" speech, accusing the country of sponsoring terrorism and seeking weapons of mass destruction, alongside Iran and Iraq.

One year later, Pyongyang announced its withdrawal from the non-proliferation treaty, which prompted the "six-party talks" aimed at providing a diplomatic alternative to curbing North Korea's nuclear program. The talks included representatives from North Korea, South Korea, the US, China, Japan and Russia.

Nuclear tests: 2006-2010

In 2006, North Korea conducted its first nuclear weapons test. However, weeks after the test, North Korea agreed to rejoin the "six-party talks" to discuss its nuclear program. Three years later, Pyongyang staged its second nuclear test, effectively shutting down the "six-party talks."

A South Korean patrol boat sank unexpectedly in 2010 following an explosion in the ship's hull, killing 46 people. An international investigation concluded that the South Korean vessel was sunk by a torpedo launched by a North Korean submarine.

Rising son: 2011-present

On December 17, 2011, Kim Jong Il died of a suspected heart attack, according to North Korean media. His youngest son, Kim Jong Un, assumed power as the supreme leader of the country.

Read more: Which US cities could North Korea's ballistic missile hit?

Under his leadership, North Korea has witnessed significant progress in its nuclear and missile development program. Pyongyang conducted one nuclear test in 2013 and two in 2016, prompting major concerns from the international community. In July 2017, North Korea successfully launched a native intercontinental ballistic missile (ICMB) named Hwasong-14.

North Korea's sixth nuclear test - the fourth to take place with Kim Jong Un as leader - was conducted on September 3, 2017. Pyongyang claimed that, on this occasion, it had successfully tested a thermonuclear weapon.

Infographic showing development of North Korea's nuclear program