The United States made a good deal with Pyongyang in 1994. But why has Obama forsaken the path of negotiation with the Hermit Kingdom?
- By Joel WitJoel Wit, a former State Department official, is a senior fellow at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies’ U.S.-Korea Institute and the founder of the 38North website.
The failure of the United States to stop North Korea’s weapons of mass destruction programs has been spotlighted by a spurt of worrying developments, starting with Pyongyang’s fourth nuclear test in January. Most recently, Pyongyang has successfully tested a large rocket motor — proof that it is advancing toward deploying an intercontinental ballistic missile — and launched a new sea-based rocket. There are even rumors that Pyongyang is preparing for a fifth nuclear test.
It would appear that Washington’s two decades of trying to stop this growing threat have been an unmitigated failure. But is that really true?
Having worked in the U.S. government, think tanks, and academia for more than 20 years, I have engaged in endless arguments over the history of U.S. efforts to stop Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program. There is a comic-book version of that history — decades of appeasement and unrelenting failure — and a more sanguine view, which I hold, that there were times when U.S. policy actually worked. If Washington is ever going to figure out how to deal with this challenge in the future, it needs to understand this diplomatic history.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not disagreeing with the all-too-obvious reality that U.S. policy has failed. When Washington started to take a serious interest in Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons program in the late 1980s, North Korea didn’t have nuclear weapons, the fissile material to build them, or the long-range missiles to deliver them. That remained the case until the mid-2000s. Today, Pyongyang has an estimated 20 weapons, is producing fissile material for more weapons, and has conducted four nuclear tests — as well as six tests of rockets able to carry these weapons. The belligerent Kim Jong Un government that rules this country is a danger to Northeast Asia — including the tens of thousands of troops stationed in South Korea and Japan — to the United States, and to the international community.
How did we get into this mess? Despite North Korea’s reputation as the inscrutable and opaque “hermit kingdom,” there are detailed books by respected authors that answer that question. There is the classic, The Two Koreas, by Don Oberdorfer, recently updated by Robert Carlin, a former U.S. government intelligence analyst. Other books by respected journalists Mike Chinoy and Glenn Kessler focus on the Bush administration’s policy toward Pyongyang. And then there is Going Critical: The First North Korean Nuclear Crisis, a book I co-wrote with the ex-government officials Daniel B. Poneman and Robert L. Galluci, which offers a firsthand account of the early 1990s confrontation between Washington and Pyongyang. Our book is based on extensive access to U.S. government documents — most of which are still not open to the public.
Exhibit A in the case for a more informed understanding of history is the 1994 U.S.-DPRK Agreed Framework, a deal I worked on, which required the North to give up its nuclear weapons program in return for economic assistance and normalization of relations with the United States. The Agreed Framework today often plays the role as an example of how not to deal with rogue states. Opponents of the Iran nuclear deal have used it to tarnish that pact, to tarnish Hillary Clinton since her husband signed the Agreed Framework, and even to tarnish me — a mid-level bureaucrat in charge of its implementation. In 2015, Sen. Mark Kirk of Illinois hinted to Secretary of State John Kerry that I had found a way to siphon off $1.5 billion of a multibillion-dollar reactor project to my personal bank account. Kerry had no idea what he was talking about. I did a quick double-check under my mattress. (Only kidding, Senator Kirk!)
There is of course a political agenda here, namely to make the case that talking to rogue states is a no-no, whether it is North Korea, Iran, or the Soviet Union. But Washington did a lot of talking to Moscow during the Cold War, and anyone would be hard-pressed today to say it was a mistake. As for the more recent Iran nuclear deal, it’s too early to tell whether it was a mistake or not — but so far, it’s working.
In the case of North Korea, the Clinton administration’s policy, while not perfect, was a success. And most experts have forgotten — at least the ones I argue with — that it wasn’t just diplomats engaged in a prolonged negotiation that led to the framework. It was the result of the administration using all the tools at its disposal: working closely with allies, constantly nudging China to support our efforts, the threat of extensive international sanctions, beginning a slow process of ramping up military deployments on the peninsula to prepare for war, serious negotiations with the North, and even preparing for a surgical strike on North Korea’s main nuclear facility with cruise missiles if Pyongyang seemed ready to start reprocessing plutonium.
As for the Agreed Framework itself, the arrangement worked while it lasted. Pyongyang’s development of a plutonium production program, ongoing since the 1960s at a cost of tens, maybe hundreds, of billions of dollars, was poised to dramatically expand by the early 1990s. U.S. intelligence estimates at the beginning of the Clinton administration told a scary story: that the North could start producing 30 Nagasaki-size nuclear weapons annually by the start of the 21st century. We had all sorts of confidential information, including highly secret satellite photographs that backed up this conclusion. But even looking at old commercial satellite photos of the North’s main nuclear installation at Yongbyon provides a glimpse of the challenge posed by Pyongyang.
I have visited this installation five times, first in 1996 as a U.S. government official after the framework was reached and, most recently, in 2008 as a private citizen. The sprawling facilities look like the ones I had seen in the Soviet Union – run-down and based on 1950s and 1960s technology. That was certainly the case with the North’s radiochemical laboratory, a plant for separating plutonium from spent fuel rods that was roughly a football field in length. The control room of Pyongyang’s plutonium production reactor seemed to have been transplanted from a cheap, 1950s Hollywood sci-fi movie. But despite appearances, all of these installations would have worked — to alarming effect.
Because of the 1994 agreement, the United States was able to head off the dangerous future foretold in its intelligence estimates. As my colleagues in the U.S. government and I worked to implement the arrangement, it gradually became clear that the North Koreans not only shuttered their operating reactor and allowed Americans to safely and securely store their spent plutonium, but also did nothing to maintain facilities under construction. The North Koreans may have thought maintaining these installations was unnecessary since they would eventually have to be dismantled under the terms of the agreement. But whatever the reason, these buildings became useless piles of junk and were abandoned. When the Agreed Framework collapsed in 2002 before it was fully implemented, Pyongyang only had enough material to eventually build less than a handful of bombs, a far cry from what we had expected without an agreement. That sounds like a success to me. And its large reactor, probably intended to produce power for civilian purposes but could have also produced plutonium for nuclear weapons, was expected to have been completed by the late 1990s. Instead, it became a pile of unsalvageable junk.
Critics who point out that the Agreed Framework failed to stop North Korea’s nuclear program — since Pyongyang was secretly working to produce weapons-grade uranium in violation of the agreement — are right on the facts but wrong on the conclusion. Yes, North Koreans started a small-scale effort to explore uranium enrichment in the 1990s; by late in that decade they had even acquired a handful of centrifuges from Pakistan to produce enriched uranium. But why would they gut an advanced plutonium production program poised to produce large numbers of nuclear weapons to press ahead with a nascent uranium enrichment program that was nowhere near producing fissile material? That would be absurd. Indeed, private experts believe that the North only recently began producing weapons-grade uranium, over a decade since the framework collapsed. Imagine where we would be today if the Agreed Framework had never existed.
Of course, the United States is in a much direr situation today than it was in 1994. Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons and missile program are more advanced, and its leadership is less interested in talking (and more unpredictable). That makes it even harder to conceive of an approach that could stop and eventually reverse this alarming trend. While the Clinton administration’s policy wasn’t perfect, the Obama administration hasn’t even attempted to use the lessons of the 1990s — tough measures and serious diplomacy. But they may still have a chance of working. Unfortunately, if U.S. policy continues to be dominated by the “no hugging, no learning” principle, that chance will be lost.
Photo credit: DAVID GUTTENFELDER/AFP/Getty Images