The case of North Korea clearly exposes the dangers of the United States seeking a nuclear agreement with a state that has no intention of abiding by one. The 1994 U.S.-North Korean Agreed Framework, which called on North Korea to freeze the operation and construction of nuclear reactors, collapsed within a decade of its signing. In 2006, North Korea conducted its first nuclear test, and today it is a full-fledged nuclear power. The United States’ experience with North Korea should make it wary of similar nuclear negotiations, especially with Iran.

In the past month, however, some have argued the opposite: that the United States’ experience with North Korea should lead it to make even greater concessions to Iran, and to continue making such concessions even after an accord is signed.

According to this line of thinking, the United States did not do enough to ensure the success of the Agreed Framework—and so will need to do more to buttress the Iran accord. In The New York Times, for example, former State Department officials Robert Gallucci and Joel Wit, both of whom negotiated the Agreed Framework, write that there was a lack of high-level attention to North Korea after 1994. As a result, they write, “the United States didn’t follow through on two major incentives it had promised in return for North Korea’s nuclear restraint: the establishment of better political relations and the lifting of economic sanctions.”

In Foreign Affairs, John Delury, Yonsei University professor, spins a similar tale. The Agreed Framework failed, he writes, when “the Clinton administration was unable to convert the nuclear deal into a political settlement, and then President George W. Bush walked away from the agreement, triggering North Korea’s so-called nuclear breakout.”

History tells a different story. Under the Agreed Framework, signed on October 12, 1994, Pyongyang agreed to freeze its plutonium production program in exchange for an American-led consortium providing ten years’ worth of heavy-oil deliveries and the construction of two electricity-generating light-water nuclear plants. (North Korea hid its real motive for wanting nuclear plants—to gain geopolitical clout—with a purported need for electrical power. Iran uses the same rationale for its nuclear program.)

Although North Korea did freeze its plutonium program in 1994, it simply began pursuing the enrichment of uranium instead. Between 1990 and 1996, the Pakistani government, through the nuclear physicist Abdul Qadeer Khan, supplied North Korea with key data on uranium enrichment in exchange for missile technology. In 2005, former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf publicly acknowledged that Khan had provided centrifuges and their designs to North Korea.

In short, North Korea was cheating both before and after the signing of the Agreed Framework. It did so in spite of the copious benefits flowing to the country as a result of South Korea’s Sunshine Policy, through which, from 1998 to 2008, South Korean President Kim Dae-jung and his successor, Roh Moo-hyun, pumped approximately $8 billion in economic assistance into North Korea in the hope of improving bilateral relations. Kim Dae-jung even won a Nobel Peace Prize for meeting with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il in 2000—a summit, it was later divulged, that was made possible only through the payment of a $500 million cash bribe to Kim Jong Il.

In October 2002, North Korean officials brazenly admitted to a visiting American delegation that North Korea had been covertly enriching uranium and had no intention of discontinuing its nuclear work. Bush was already skeptical of North Korea, which he had labeled part of the “axis of evil,” and this revelation confirmed his views. Even so, to prevent North Korea from breaking out of its nuclear obligations, the United States, together with China and other states, launched the six-party talks, which resulted in Pyongyang agreeing once again, in 2005, to abandon its nuclear program. Yet North Korea went ahead and tested a nuclear weapon in 2006.

A North Korean soldier guards an army installation on the banks of the Yalu River after world leaders condemned North Korea's announcement that it had carried out a nuclear test, October 2006.
Reinhard Krause / Courtesy Reuters

Even then, the Bush administration tried once more to coax North Korea to the bargaining table. Washington had begun to squeeze cash flows to North Korean elites but effectively abandoned this policy by lifting sanctions on Macao-based Banco Delta Asia, a money-laundering hub where North Korea kept $25 million in various accounts. That concession once again generated momentum in nuclear negotiations, or so it seemed; in 2007, Pyongyang agreed to start disabling a plutonium reactor in Yongbyon. As a further sweetener, in 2008, the Bush administration removed North Korea from the list of state sponsors of terrorism and agreed to resume food aid. (Between 1995 and 2008, the United States provided North Korea with over $1.3 billion in food and energy assistance.) Nevertheless, North Korea refused to follow through on an agreement to disclose all of its nuclear programs, and the negotiations broke down. North Korea continued to conduct nuclear and missile tests during the first six months of President Barack Obama’s administration despite his professed willingness to revive the six-party talks and meet with Kim Jong Il.

It takes a willful denial of reality to claim, as Gallucci, Wit, and Delury do, that the United States was at fault for the breakdown in U.S.-North Korean negotiations. A dispassionate reading of the evidence suggests that North Korea was never serious about giving up a nuclear program into which it had invested decades—not to mention billions of dollars—and that it saw as vital to regime protection and internal legitimacy. If North Korea has not developed as many nuclear weapons as U.S. intelligence agencies once feared, that is most likely a side effect of the regime’s dysfunction rather than any lack of desire to acquire more weapons.

The parallels with Iran are not comforting. If Iran is anything like North Korea, it will seek to gain the benefits of a deal—notably, the lifting of sanctions—without truly ending its nuclear program. Keeping Iran in check will require verification procedures more strict than those imposed on North Korea. But there was little sign of such procedures in the framework agreement negotiated in Lausanne. In fact, shortly after the deal was announced, Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Khameini, said that Iran would never accept unfettered inspection of its military facilities. And even if Iran does eventually accept stricter oversight, the United States will have to commit to holding the country to account instead of simply offering extra concessions in a futile bid to get it to live up to its original promises, as it did with North Korea. Only then will the lessons of the Agreed Framework truly have been learned.

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  • SUE MI TERRY is a former CIA analyst and Senior Research Scholar at the Columbia University Weatherhead East Asian Institute. MAX BOOT is a Senior Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.
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