North Korean Nuclear Diplomacy Worked

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

The remaining 8,000 spent fuel rods—containing about 20-28 kilograms of plutonium—were placed in canisters and under IAEA safeguards. The 5 MWe reactor at Yongbyon was shut down and construction stopped at the 50 MWe reactor at Yongbyon and the 200 MWe reactor at Taechon.

In 1998, the United States accused North Korea of building a secret plutonium production reactor and reprocessing facility underground, near a place called Kumchang-ri. Well, strictly speaking, DIA suspected that Kumchang-ri was an underground reactor and someone fed this to the New York Times, which ran it under the headline: “NORTH KOREA SITE AN A-BOMB PLANT, U.S. AGENCIES SAY.”

The United States negotiated access to the site. When U.S. inspectors arrived, they could not determine the purpose of the site, but concluded that Kumchang-ri, laid out as a grid of tunnels, was “unsuitable” for a nuclear reactor and “not well designed” for a reprocessing facility.

The Agreed Framework was premised on a transformation of the political and economic relationship, a perhaps too ambitious expectation since even a DPRK without nuclear weapons is fundamentally unlikeable. North Korea’s human rights situation remained appalling. And the North Koreans continued to show an appalling enthusiasm for grabbing people, whether Japanese abducted in secret during the 1970s or Americans detained in recent years.

The North Koreans also continued to develop, test and sell increasingly long-range ballistic missiles, something the Clinton administration sought to address after the 1998 Taepodong test. And, of course, we now know that the Clinton administration was starting to get wind of the relationship with AQ Khan—which ultimately resulted in the missiles for centrifuge barter that would create so much turmoil in 2002.

But in terms of the fundamental purpose of the agreement—to freeze the DPRK’s plutonium production capabilities—Pyongyang complied.

Assumption 3: The Agreed Framework collapsed because North Korea started a centrifuge program.

Again, not quite—but starting a secret centrifuge program certainly didn’t help, that’s for damned sure.

The Agreed Framework was already under a lot of pressure as the Clinton administration drew to a close. Congress exercised its power of the purse to involve itself in the implementation of the Agreed Framework, resulting in irregular deliveries of heavy fuel oil to North Korea and delays to the construction of light-water reactors. Even if Kumchang-ri turned out to be a dead-end, the leaks had weakened the agreement. And North Korea’s missile program, following the shock of the 1998 Taepodong test and continuing sales abroad, was a significant barrier to normalization of relations. The Clinton administration had asked former Secretary of Defense William Perry to review U.S. policy toward North Korea. His approach, dubbed the “Perry Process,” implied seeking to build additional agreements on top of the Agreed Framework—starting with an agreement to end North Korea’s development of long-range ballistic missiles. The Clinton administration was this close to an agreement on missiles when the clock ran out.

The Clinton administration, too, knew about North Korea’s centrifuge work—and had pressured Pakistan to cut off Pyongyang.

The newly installed Bush administration undertook a policy review that stretched into 2002. The result of this review, it is often forgotten, was a version of the Perry Process, safely rebranded as the “bold approach.” This is forgotten because, before anyone could tell the North Koreans, the U.S. received intelligence that indicated North Korea’s centrifuge program was much further along than previously thought. While the U.S. intelligence community had known about North Korea’s interest in centrifuges, the scale of the procurement suggested a much more mature program.

I do not want to suggest, as others have, that the DPRK’s enrichment program was purely for civil purposes. The North Koreans were clearly, in my view, giving themselves a second route to nuclear weapons. But the Bush administration had a fundamental choice: Under the Perry Process, the approach was to treat North Korea’s centrifuge program like its ballistic missile program or its abductions of foreign citizens—yet another instance of terrible North Korean behavior that had to be dealt with in time. In this case, the United States might have negotiated a new agreement to complement the freeze on the DPRK’s plutonium program provided by the Agreed Framework.

The alternative, of course, was to blow up everything. Or, as John Bolton would write with exceptional candor, “This was the hammer I had been looking for to shatter the Agreed Framework.” The phrasing—“had been looking for”—is telling.