North Korean Nuclear Diplomacy Worked

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

I think this was the wrong choice—although I do suspect a Gore administration might have let the Agreed Framework succumb to political pressures under the same circumstances. The Perry Process was always about bigger carrots and bigger sticks, which is how we ended up with Perry suggesting we attack North Korea in 2006. We’ll never know how a Gore administration would have responded to new intelligence about the maturity of the North Korean enrichment effort. The politics though, don’t change the merits. Why on earth would our response to North Korean bad behavior be to free them from their obligations not to produce plutonium?

Still, no one listens to me! The Bush administration decided to suspend U.S. obligations under the Agreed Framework.

The consequences were pretty straightforward. North Korea “effectuated” its withdrawal from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, opened the cans of spent fuel and separated out the plutonium, restarted Yongbyon to produce even more plutonium, then conducted a nuclear explosion in 2006. I guess that showed ol’ Kim Jong Il.

This policy was such a rousing success that the Bush administration used the Six Party Talks to renegotiate a much watered-down version of the Agreed Framework with North Korea. Of course, Bush didn’t call it that. (And since Bush had criticized the Agreed Framework as a mere “freeze” instead of a complete, verifiable and irreversible dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear programs, they dredged up an archaic word—“disablement”—that sounded enough like dismantlement to save the president from any embarrassment.)

But come on. Here is how Bush described the Six Party Agreement in his memoir Decision Points:

In February 2007, North Korea agreed to shut down its main nuclear reactor and allow UN inspectors back into the country to verify its actions. In exchange, we and our Six-Party partners provided energy aid, and the United States agreed to remove North Korea from our list of state sponsors of terror.

Tell me how that isn’t an off-brand Agreed Framework, and I’ll laugh in your face.

The United States even agreed to provide North Korea with light-water reactors, the element of the deal the Bush administration criticized most directly. Strangely, Bush doesn’t mention that in his memoir.

So, what does all this mean?

The fundamental logic of the Agreed Framework was sound. North Korea had a small, unknown stockpile of plutonium in 1994. It was on the verge of having much, much more.

The United States successfully froze that stockpile—a freeze that lasted eight years. And when the Bush administration chose to “shatter” the Agreement (Mr. Bolton’s characterization, not mine) the consequences were clear. North Korea has increased its stockpile of plutonium to more than 60 kilograms and conducted three nuclear explosions. Moreover, the United States failed utterly to constrain North Korea’s uranium enrichment program, which is now the major source of uncertainty about the size of North Korea’s nuclear stockpile. The same president who walked away from the agreement spent the final years of his term trying to resurrect it, albeit under a different name to avoid any admission of failure.

The Agreed Framework was a very good deal even it if was an imperfect one. I am reluctant to draw too many conclusions about the framework announced to limit Iran’s nuclear program, but perhaps those fiddling with purse strings in Congress or looking for a hammer when they get into office should see the Agreed Framework as a cautionary tale.

On the other hand, “disincrease” isn’t taken yet. So there’s that.

Jeffrey Lewis is Director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies (CNS), Monterey Institute of International Studies, and a frequent contributor to 38 North.

Image: Wikimedia Commons/Nicor