In a recent Foreign Affairs article, “Lessons from North Korea,” John Delury urged diplomats to heed those lessons in implementing the nuclear agreement with Iran. Based on the U.S. experience with the 1994 Agreed Framework with North Korea, Delury argued persuasively that the nuclear accord with Iran must be followed by the construction of a fundamentally new Iranian relationship with the United States, the region, and the world.
Another lesson from North Korean negotiations is equally important: that the United States must follow through on the commitments it makes during the negotiating process. In the case of the Agreed Framework, for example, the United States committed to reduce trade and investment barriers for North Korea within three months, to work a normalization of relations, and to permit the North Korean regime to build two light water reactors, the first to be completed in 2003. The United States took no meaningful action on its commitments for six years, and the foundation of the first reactor was not poured until August 2002, about eight years after the framework was agreed upon.
As Delury correctly notes, the incoming administration of former U.S. President George W. Bush opposed the Agreed Framework and walked away from the deal; some may thus conclude that the United States’ failure to fulfill its commitments did not matter. In fact, it had a significant impact on North Korea, which demonstrated considerable patience at the time.
In his State of the Union address on January 29, 2002, Bush anointed North Korea, along with Iran and Iraq, as a charter member of an “axis of evil.” Consistent with Vice President Dick Cheney’s statement that “We don’t negotiate with evil, we defeat it,” the Bush administration, for the remainder of its first term, conditioned its willingness to negotiate with North Korea on the “complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantlement” of its nuclear program. In other words, Washington began negotiations with an ultimatum, leaving very little room in the process for true dialogue. This gave North Korea