A History of North Korea's Nuclear Nightmare
The CIA had pieced together evidence of the North Korean uranium-enrichment program, including shipments of centrifuges from Pakistan and Russia. In December 2002, James Kelly, the assistant secretary of state for East Asia, went to Pyongyang and confronted a negotiator with evidence of North Korea’s uranium program. The negotiator then reportedly admitted to the existence of the program in somewhat cagey terms, and suggested uranium enrichment could be abandoned in exchange for the United States following through with other Framework preventions, such as the normalization of relations and removal of sanctions. (North Korea later claimed, incredibly and somewhat incoherently, that its negotiator had been mistranslated, and had only argued for its hypothetical right to uranium enrichment—which, by the way, was only for civilian purposes.)
This apparent belligerent admission led the Bush administration to cut off the fuel oil shipments. Within a few weeks, Pyongyang retaliated by announcing it was withdrawing from the Non-Proliferation Treaty and reclaiming nuclear fuel from the IAEA. KEDO was effectively nixed as well. Pyongyang’s nuclear-weapons program kicked back into full gear.
In the subsequent months, Pyongyang would closely observe the U.S. invasion of Iraq, another country run by a despotic regime that had nonetheless allowed the entry of international inspectors and, as it turned out, abandoned its nuclear- and chemical-weapons programs. This event reinforced Pyongyang’s determination that nuclear weapons, not adherence to treaties and bargains, were a surer guarantee of the regime’s survival.
Three years later, on October 9, 2006, North Korea performed its first detonation of a nuclear device at Punggye-ri. In the subsequent years, the Bush administration would offer Pyongyang generous concessions, and even removed North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism, in a belated attempt to secure its re-adherence to a nonproliferation regime. But the Kim dynasty was now determined to acquire nuclear weapons, and multiple rounds of talks did little to meaningfully divert it.
Pyongyang clearly acted in bad faith when it continued its uranium-enrichment program, and it repeatedly used noncompliance with earlier agreements it had made as bargaining chips for future concessions. However, this does not change the role that inconsistent diplomatic engagement from Washington played in persuading Pyongyang to double down on its nuclear program at the expense of pursuing other paths.
Sébastien Roblin holds a master’s degree in conflict resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. He currently writes on security and military history for War Is Boring.