The Wrong Lessons From North Korea

Avoiding a Nuclear Iran

Models of a North Korean Scud-B missile at the Korean War Memorial Museum in Seoul, April 2009. Jo Yong-Hak / Courtesy Reuters

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. (

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