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Flashback: That Time Bill Clinton Said North Korea Would Dismantle Its Nuclear Program

Editor's Note (Matt): This post is a couple years old, but given how North Korea is back in the news, I thought it was timely again. Thanks, Bill.


So, by now, most of you have heard of the pending deal the West struck with Iran over its nuclear program. Guy examined the proposal over the past week. Israel still says the deal poses an existential threat to them, and that lifting the sanctions would allow Iran to continue funding its terrorist activities.


Unsurprisingly, the Obama administration has been highly receptive over what’s been hashed out between Iran and the West.

“I'm convinced that if this framework leads to a final comprehensive deal, it will make our country, our allies and our world safer,” said President Obama.

Let’s go back in time when then-President Bill Clinton praised the nuclear deal his administration made with North Korea in 1994 (via The Weekly Standard):

"Before I take your questions, I'd like to say just a word about the framework with North Korea that Ambassador Gallucci signed this morning. This is a good deal for the United States," Clinton said at the press conference.

"North Korea will freeze and then dismantle its nuclear program. South Korea and our other allies will be better protected. The entire world will be safer as we slow the spread of nuclear weapons.

"South Korea, with support from Japan and other nations, will bear most of the cost of providing North Korea with fuel to make up for the nuclear energy it is losing, and they will pay for an alternative power system for North Korea that will allow them to produce electricity while making it much harder for them to produce nuclear weapons.

"The United States and international inspectors will carefully monitor North Korea to make sure it keeps its commitments. Only as it does so will North Korea fully join the community of nations."

Since then, North Korea acquired nuclear weapons capability, and has hundreds of ballistic missiles aimed at neighboring countries (via AP):

Nuclear-armed North Korea already has hundreds of ballistic missiles that can target its neighbors in Northeast Asia but will need foreign technology to upgrade its arsenal and pose a more direct threat to the United States, U.S. researchers said Tuesday.

Those are the latest findings of a research program investigating what secretive North Korea's nuclear weapons capability will be by 2020.

Unlike Iran, the current focus of international nuclear diplomacy, North Korea has conducted atomic test explosions. Its blood-curdling rhetoric and periodic missile tests have set the region on edge and there's no sign of negotiations restarting to coax it into disarming.

For now, the emphasis is on sanctions and military preparedness. Defense Secretary Ash Carter visits Japan and South Korea this week amid speculation the U.S. wants to place a missile defense system in South Korea against North Korean ballistic missiles, which Seoul is reluctant about as it would alienate China. The U.S. has already deployed anti-missile radar in Japan.

The North Korean Futures Project — a joint effort by the U.S.-Korea Institute at John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and National Defense University's Center for the Study of Weapons of Mass Destruction — is trying to shed some light on what kind of threat Pyongyang poses.

It may already be able to field a limited number of long-range Taepodong missiles in an emergency but they would be unreliable, vulnerable to pre-emptive strike and inaccurate, the analysis says.

Foreign assistance could be critical for overcoming the technological and engineering hurdles it now faces in developing better missiles, including progress on high-performance engines, heat shields, guidance electronics and rocket motors that use solid fuel instead of liquid fuel, it says.

And that's become tougher as North Korea's international isolation has intensified since its first nuclear test explosion in 2006.

That hasn't stopped its nuclear program, although it remains unclear whether the North has been able to miniaturize a nuclear device to mount on a missile. According to a recent estimate by the Washington-based Institute for Science and International Security, the North likely has enough fissile material for at least 10 weapons, and that could increase to between 20 and 100 weapons by 2020.


Saudi Arabia is cautiously optimistic about this deal. Foreign Affairs noted that they, along with Turkey and Egypt, have made it known that they would probably start their own nuclear programs should Iran acquire the bomb. Also, Israel would be ready to launch their nuclear weapons against a state that has on more than one occasion called for its annihilation.

In the end, the deal with North Korea, known as the Agreed Framework, did not survive. The Bush administration took a harder line with North Korea. Here’s the deal courtesy of the Nuclear Threat Initiative:

According to the Agreed Framework, the DPRK agreed to:
  • freeze and eventually dismantle its graphite-moderated reactors; seal, cease activities at, and eventually dismantle its reprocessing facilities; cooperate in finding a safe method to store existing spent fuel from its 5 MW experimental reactor and to dispose of such fuel in a safe manner that does not involve reprocessing in the DPRK;
  • allow the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to monitor the freeze of its reactors; allow the implementation of its safeguards agreement under the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) allow the IAEA to resume ad-hoc and routine inspections of facilities not subject to the freeze upon conclusion of a Supply Agreement for the light-water reactor (LWR) project;
  • come into full compliance with its safeguards agreement with the IAEA upon conclusion of a significant portion of the LWR project; remain a party to the NPT; and
  • take consistent steps to implement the North-South Joint Declaration on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula; and engage in North-South dialogue.

In return for its obligations above, the DPRK was guaranteed the following:

  • two LWRs with a total generating capacity of approximately 2,000 MW(e), financed and supplied by an international consortium, by 2003;
  • 150,000 tons of heavy fuel oil by October 1995 for heating and electricity production foregone due to the freeze of its graphite-moderated reactors, and 500,000 tons annually thereafter until the completion of the first LWR; and
  • formal assurances from the United States against the threat or use of nuclear weapons.

In addition, the Agreed Framework required the United States and the DPRK to:

  • reduce barriers to trade and investment, including restrictions on telecommunications services and financial services and transactions; open liaison offices in each other's capitals; and
  • upgrade bilateral relations to ambassadorial level as progress is made on issues of concern to each side.

PBS and theArms Control Association have good chronologies of the Agreed Framework.

In March of 2001, both timelines show that President Bush shifted policy towards engaging North Korea; one of them included verification of all the provision in the deal.

“According to Clinton administration officials, the issue of how to verify a missile deal remained one of the final stumbling blocks to a successful arrangement,” according to Arms Control. Bush also cites North Korea’s lack of transparency.

By June of 2001, North Korea threatens to restart missile tests, which were halted in an agreement made by then-Secretary of State Madeline Albright in 2000.

The 9/11 terrorist attacks shifts Bush foreign policy even further; North Korea is named as one of the nations in the “Axis of Evil” that threatens “the peace of the world” by President Bush during his 2002 State of the Union Address.

In 2002, CIA uncovers North Korea’s secret uranium enrichment program. Here is where the Framework crumbles (via PBS) [emphasis mine]:

In the summer of 2002, the CIA, working with evidence that it had been collecting since the middle of Clinton's second term, concludes that North Korea is secretly pursuing a uranium enrichment program. The uranium enrichment program is different from the plutonium-based program that Pyongyang agreed to freeze during negotiations for the 1994 Agreed Framework; however the U.S. argues that North Korea has violated the spirit, if not the letter, of the agreement.

On Oct. 3, Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly travels to Pyongyang to confront the North Koreans with the evidence. The next day, the North Koreans admit to the program but refuse to end it. Pyongyang's admission is not publicly revealed for two weeks.

In November, the U.S. Japan, and South Korea cut off all fuel oil shipments to North Korea.

December 2002-February 2003

North Korea restarts plutonium program

North Korea turns off all the monitoring equipment at its nuclear facilities at Yongbyon and sends IAEA inspectors home. The following month, Pyongyang announces its withdrawal from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and insists that only bilateral talks with the U.S. can resolve the conflict. It restarts the nuclear reactor in February.

As fears that North Korea may soon begin producing nuclear weapons escalate, the Bush administration maintains that the current problems can be resolved peacefully only through a multilateral diplomatic process involving Japan, South Korea and China.


By March 2003, the Framework is officially dead; America invades Iraq.

The Washington Post even mentioned that the collapse of the framework was so complete that the Obama administration had virtually zero enthusiasm to restart disarmament talks:

After North Korea conducted its first nuclear test in 2006, the Bush administration tried desperately to negotiate a new accord with Pyongyang, including offering new concessions, but those efforts ultimately failed. The nuclear genie by then was out of the bottle. The issue was considered such a loser that the Obama administration has barely bothered to restart disarmament talks.

The Post was taking Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) to task for saying, “It only took North Korea 12 years to get a nuclear weapon from the time we reached the Agreed Framework in 1994 to the time they tested their first weapon in 2006.”

They didn’t issue pinocchios, but said:

Contrary to Cotton’s statement, North Korea obtained the bomb not because of the agreement, but because the agreement failed. Presumably, North Korea would have gotten its hands on the plutonium sooner if not for the original agreement.

With Iran, the deal could still fall apart, but even if it doesn't; the president admitted that Iran could build a nuclear bomb rather quickly 13 years after this deal is hypothetically implemented. 

Regardless, the collapse of the Agreed Framework proves how dealing with nations considered rogue and untrustworthy is a diplomatic minefield that so far has yielded bad results, especially on atomic matters. Nevertheless, there’s a lot of speculation lingering in its aftermath:

Analyst Jeffrey Lewis recently wrote that “I suspect Clinton or [Al] Gore would have responded to intelligence about the enrichment program in the same fashion as Bush did,” but former Clinton officials have disagreed. They have privately argued that they would have found a way to manage the process so that the plutonium would have remained out of North Korea’s hands. (There is certainly evidence that the Bush administration seized on the signs of a clandestine program to force a confrontation.) Moreover, a continuing diplomatic process might have meant that Pyongyang would have had less reason to find ways to cheat on the Agreed Framework.

But that’s all speculative. No one really knows what would have happened if a president more supportive of the Agreed Framework, such as Gore, had been in the White House.

[Joel Wit, who was in charge of implementing the Agreed Framework during the Clinton administration, writes that Lewis is “just wrong” and a Gore presidency would have handled the situation differently. In the Clinton administration,”we did know about the DPRK cheating on the highly-enriched uranium front starting in 1998 and had a strategy for dealing with it, namely to confront the DPRK and to use the leverage provided by the Agreed Framework in order to make the solution stick,” he said, using the initials for the official name of North Korea (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea).]

(Some former Clinton administration officials will also concede that they never thought they would have to build the light-water reactors because they assumed, wrongly, that the regime would collapse before the reactors would be built. So one could argue that the Agreed Framework was built on a bad bet in the first place.) [Wit notes that if even this was the case, it had no impact on how the deal was implemented. “The Japanese and Republic of Korea didn’t make the significant financial and other commitments they made just to fake it,” he said.]


Editor's Note: I should have been more thorough in detailing the aspects of the Agreed Framework, and mentioned that it collapsed in the early 2000s.  

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