A recent Foreign Affairs article by Max Boot and Sue Mi Terry—“The Wrong Lessons from North Korea: Avoiding a Nuclear Iran”—attacks a piece we wrote in the New York Times about the real lessons of the United States’ efforts to stop North Korea from going nuclear. Although everyone knows the old bromide “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” it is essential not just to remember the past but also to understand it. From our perspective as participants in U.S. nuclear talks with North Korea, Boot and Terry’s argument fails that test.

We second Boot and Terry’s motion that the United States’ experience with Pyongyang should make Washington wary of similar negotiations with Tehran. But we disagree with their discussion of U.S.–North Korean nuclear negotiations that follows. It portrays Pyongyang as being on an unrelenting march toward acquiring nuclear weapons, uninhibited by U.S. diplomacy and, indeed, encouraged by Washington’s naive provision of assistance intended to convince the North to stop. The lessons of this experience for Iran, the authors imply, should be obvious.

The only problem is that their history ignores history. They are right, of course, that the United States has failed to stop North Korea’s nuclear program over the past 20 years. Moreover, recent studies and press reports have made it clear that Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons’ stockpile may be on the verge of a dramatic expansion. Just how great that expansion could be is open to conjecture, since predicting the future of anything in North Korea is a difficult proposition. Taking into account these uncertainties, one study (led by one of the authors) concludes that North Korea could have anywhere from 20–100 nuclear weapons by 2020, with a stockpile of 50 bombs the most likely outcome.

But in at least one historical episode—the one with which we are most familiar, since we negotiated the deal—a nuclear agreement with Pyongyang did have disastrous consequences for North Korea. The consensus view of the U.S. intelligence community in the early 1990s was that Pyongyang’s nuclear program was so advanced that it could produce 30 Nagasaki-size nuclear weapons a year by the end of the decade. The 1994 U.S.-Agreed Framework stopped that drive and, as we note in our piece, “more than 20 years later [the predicted expansion] still hasn’t happened.”

Boot and Terry’s history omits this evidence, which shows that the United States can actually reach deals with rogue states that serve its interests. Our experience also appears to contradict their view of the Iran talks. In the case of North Korea, they argue, the regime was never serious about giving up a nuclear program “in which it had invested decades, not to mention billions of dollars.” They blame the country’s failure to build as many weapons as the United States expected on “regime dysfunction.” On the first count, we will never know what would have happened if the Agreed Framework had not collapsed in 2002. But we do know that, as a direct result of the agreement, the North gutted a decades-old multi-billion-dollar plutonium production program. And if by “regime dysfunction,” the authors actually mean that North Korea got the short end of the nuclear stick in the 1994 negotiation, we agree.

There are important lessons to be learned from the failure of the 1994 agreement. Unfortunately, Boot and Terry mischaracterize our article, asserting that we blame the United States for the collapse of the 1994 agreement since Washington did not do enough to ensure its success. The real history—one of us was in charge of implementation—is that, over eight years, the United States, along with South Korea, Japan, and the international community, exerted enormous effort to move forward with its side of the deal, particularly the construction of a multi-billion-dollar reactor project in North Korea. There were problems as there would be in any deal of this magnitude—an important lesson for the Iran negotiators to keep in mind. However, we also state explicitly—something Boot and Terry fail to note—that “this does not excuse the North’s behavior (it’s cheating) but it does show these deals require constant attention.” To us, that is just plain common sense.  

Finally, North Korea did cheat on the 1994 deal as Boot and Terry note. That possibility did not come as a shock to those of us who remembered U.S. President Ronald Reagan’s old truism, “trust but verify.” But Reagan also understood that agreements could still serve American interests if they dealt effectively with threats to U.S. security as long as violations could be dealt with effectively as well. In the case of the 1994 agreement, despite limited inspection rights, cheating was detected early on through our own intelligence sources. Unfortunately, history shows that the George W. Bush administration’s reaction as the problem got worse—to confront Pyongyang—was not well thought out. North Korea withdrew from the agreement, and the United States, busy with one war in Afghanistan and about to invade Iraq, had little choice but to restart negotiations and try to recreate the 1994 deal. In short, another common-sense lesson for the Iran negotiators is to have a considered game plan for political, economic, and possibly military steps ready to deal with violations.

We were not part of what happened after the collapse of the 1994 agreement in 2002, nor does our article touch on that episode in U.S.–North Korean relations. But as we make clear, the 1994 agreement was a success, and provides important lessons for the future. Unfortunately, Boot and Terry’s overview of 20 years of history misses that point.

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  • ROBERT L. GALLUCCI, a professor of diplomacy at Georgetown University, was the chief negotiator for the 1994 nuclear deal with North Korea.
  • JOEL S. WIT a senior fellow at the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins, was the coordinator for the deal from 1995 to 1999.
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  • More By Joel S. Wit