The Buzz

A History of North Korea's Nuclear Nightmare

This was seen as an acceptable compromise, because light-water reactor technology was less easily converted to military purposes. After some delays, Pyongyang did follow through by canceling the two new reactors, granting access to IAEA inspectors and setting aside its extant nuclear fuel stocks. U.S. intelligence reports estimated that the agreement prevented North Korea from building up to a hundred nuclear weapons in the next decade.

Problem solved! But both Washington and North Korea failed to follow through, in both the letter and spirit of the agreement.

Clinton, Congress and Framework Follow-up

The Agreed Framework was not technically a “treaty,” and thus did not require a vote in Congress. This was approached was devised by the Clinton administration to avoid having the deal scrubbed by partisan politics. Indeed, two weeks after the agreement was signed, a new round of legislative elections swept the Republican Party to control of the U.S. House and Senate. Republican senators and representatives were fiercely critical of the deal, arguing it rewarded North Korean misbehavior.

The problem remained that following through on many of the U.S. promises in the deal did, in fact, require congressional approval. Though funding was grudgingly forthcoming for the fue-oil shipments, these often arrived after promised deadlines. Seoul ended up footing most of the $4.6 billion bill for the light-water reactors, but progress by KEDO proved slow, and only preliminary work had begun by the provisional “due date” of 2003.

Perceiving further concessions as being politically untenable, the Clinton administration largely gave up on following through with the rest of the Agreed Framework, and made few serious attempts at lifting sanctions or formally ending the Korean War—which was still officially ongoing a half century after fighting had ended. Later, some Clinton-era officials admitted they had expected North Korea to collapse on its own before the light-water reactors were ever constructed.

But what Washington regarded as vaguely worded rhetoric about warmer relations was seen as a vital assurance to an insecure, famine-wracked North Korea. Pyongyang interpreted the failure of what was then the world’s only superpower to follow through in the most paranoid light.

North Korean Uranium Cheating

Washington may not have sustained serious engagement with North Korea, but Seoul bent over backwards, making friendly gestures and providing economic aid through the “Sunshine Policy” under the liberal governments of Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun from 1998 to 2008. International food aid would help bring the North Korean famine under control by 1998.

Though Pyongyang accepted the aid, it strangely did not cease its provocative and often-violent military activities. North Korean troops shot down a straying American helicopter in 1994—and demanded that Washington apologize. In 1996, a North Korean submarine ran aground in Gangneung, South Korea, while deploying commandos who proceeded to kill fourteen South Koreans and attempted to flee on foot back across the Demilitarized Zone. Two more submarine infiltrations ended bloodily in 1998, followed by naval battles near Yeonpyeong in 1999 and 2002.

At the same time, having had its plutonium-bomb program constrained by the agreement, North Korea instead secretly began work on producing a uranium bomb.

The “Little Boy” bomb dropped on Hiroshima was a uranium weapon, but today nearly all nuclear weapons use plutonium-239. Though the uranium bomb amounted to a slower, less effective path to nuclear weaponry, it still could be developed into deadly weapons. Pakistani nuclear physicist Abdul Qadeer Khan transferred nuclear technology to North Korea through a proliferation network between 1991 and 1997, both before and after the Framework—a move that he claims was ordered by the Pakistani government in exchange for North Korea’s ballistic-missile technology.

Kim Jong-il and Bush Blow Up the Framework

In the final year of the Clinton administration, it belatedly followed through with making assurances of “no hostile intent” from U.S. military forces and removing certain sanctions. However, the former measure was rescinded the following year under the George W. Bush administration, which reinstated North Korea as a potential target in its Nuclear Posture Review.

Though Secretary of State Colin Powell was in favor of continuing engagement with Pyongyang, he was overruled by neoconservatives in the Bush administration, who favored confrontation and possible “regime change” (i.e., war). After the 9/11 attacks, North Korea was labeled part of the “Axis of Evil.”