North Korean Nuclear Diplomacy Worked

"The fundamental logic of the Agreed Framework was sound."

In 1994, the Clinton administration reached a deal with North Korea to halt its plutonium production. That deal eventually unraveled, and North Korea ultimately acquired nuclear weapons. Many have cited this as evidence that diplomacy with Iran won’t work. It is in this context that we present the latest from our friends at 38 North, where this piece first appeared, who ask the question: Did the 1994 Agreed Framework actually fail?

Throughout the debate over nuclear negotiations with Iran, many commenters have referred to 1994 Agreed Framework between the United States of America and the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Usually, these references are made in passing, conveying the idea that the Agreed Framework is, like the Kellogg-Briand Pact, broadly understood to have been a failure. (A nice exception to this rule was this piece by Barbara Slavin.)

Well, I don’t think any such thing, either about the Agreed Framework or the Kellogg-Briand Pact! (And don’t get me started on Kellogg-Briand! If you think it was intended mainly to “outlaw war,” you are as naïve as the interwar peace movement that embraced it.)

Most of the people who invoke the failure of the Agreed Framework couldn’t tell you the first thing about it—other than that they “know” it didn’t work because North Korea now has nuclear weapons. But they are misguided. The 1994 Agreed Framework was a good deal. Would that we had been wise enough to keep it.

Let’s start with three statements about North Korea and the Agreed Framework. These statements are basically accurate, but there are some very important clarifications and corrections. And it is within those corrections and clarifications that the logic of the Agreed Framework is evident.

Assumption 1: In 1994, North Korea already had enough plutonium for one, possibly two nuclear weapons.

Not quite. The U.S. intelligence community believed North Korea had a stockpile of undeclared plutonium, but did not know whether that stockpile was a few grams or a few kilograms.

There were good reasons to suspect that North Korea had a stockpile of undeclared plutonium. In 1989, the DPRK shut down the reactor at Yongbyon for about 70 days. North Korea may have unloaded some or all of the fuel rods in the reactor’s core during this period. There are good reasons for such a suspicion. Satellite images show the DPRK constructed what appear to be camouflaged waste tanks. Environmental samples taken by the IAEA showed the DPRK had conducted more reprocessing “campaigns” than Pyongyang had declared.

But how much fuel was unloaded? How much plutonium was in the fuel? The U.S. Joint Atomic Energy Intelligence Committee assessed the worst-case scenario of 8.3-8.5 kilograms of plutonium, revised down from an earlier estimate of 12 kilograms. That is enough for “one, possibly two” nuclear weapons depending on a number of factors such as how much plutonium the North Korean design required and how much might be lost during processing.

This was a worst-case estimate. While it is important to ensure that our policies hedge against worst-case estimates, it is also important to hedge against uncertainty. The North Koreans might not have had more than few grams of separated plutonium. Or perhaps they had a few kilograms, but not enough for a bomb.

We simply did not know then, and do not know now, how much plutonium North Korea squirreled away. The North Koreans, of course, admitted to only a few grams in 1994. Interestingly, they denied it again in 2006 when they declared a plutonium stockpile of 37 kilograms.

Assumption 2: North Korea cheated on the Agreed Framework.

Well, again, not quite. We should give the devil his due: North Korea largely kept its commitments regarding its plutonium-production capabilities.

Starting a secret enrichment program, on the other hand, clearly violated understood expectations, a classic example of a transgressor obtaining a slight advantage in comparison with a relatively large inconvenience imposed upon the aggrieved party. This will get its own section.

But freezing North Korea’s plutonium production was nothing to sneeze at. We might not have known how much separated plutonium North Korea possessed, but we had a pretty good idea how much unseparated plutonium was sitting in North Korea’s spent fuel pond in 1994. Moreover, we know how much plutonium North Korea would be able to produce each year if it completed the two much larger reactors under construction at Yongbyon and Taechon. The CIA spelled all this out quite clearly in 2002:

“If North Korea abandoned the Agreed Framework P’yongyang could resume production of plutonium.

  • Reprocessing the spent 5 MWe reactor fuel now in storage at the Yongbyon site under IAEA safeguards would recover enough plutonium for several more weapons.

  • Restarting the 5 MWe reactor would generate about 6 kg per year.

  • The 50 MWe reactor at Yongbyon and the 200 MWe reactor at Taechon would generate about 275 kg per year, although it would take several years to complete construction of these reactors.”