In This Review

Going Critical: The First North Korean Nuclear Crisis
Going Critical: The First North Korean Nuclear Crisis
By Joel S. Wit, Daniel B. Poneman, and Robert L. Gallucci
Brookings Institution Press, 2004, 448 pp.

This October marks the tenth anniversary of the Geneva Agreed Framework, which was signed by Washington and Pyongyang on October 21, 1994, ending the first nuclear standoff with North Korea. There will be no champagne toast, however, to celebrate the occasion. The Agreed Framework, sharply contested by Republican critics at its inception and never fully implemented, has been effectively dead since October 2002, when Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly visited Pyongyang. On that trip, the Bush administration's first high-level contact with the North Korean government, Kelly asked his North Korean counterparts about their covert attempts to develop a highly enriched uranium bomb program in violation of the Agreed Framework. The North Koreans responded angrily to Kelly's charge but, in the process, admitted that he was right, thereby igniting the second North Korean nuclear crisis.

Today, many of the events of ten years ago seem to be repeating themselves. Although this crisis has several striking differences from the last one, the Bush administration would do well to study carefully the drama of 1993-94 and reflect on President Bill Clinton's choices before making its own. Fortunately, Washington has a powerful new tool to aid it in this task: Going Critical: The First North Korean Nuclear Crisis, a comprehensive insider's guide to the first North Korean nuclear standoff and an essential tool for comparing today's events to the last round. As the book makes clear, the stakes and the confusion of the original crisis could not have been greater; during its climax in 1994, Clinton even compared it to the Cuban missile crisis. Going Critical also underscores the changing risks of nuclear proliferation in what Yale's Paul Bracken has called the "second nuclear age" and expands on earlier accounts to offer an authoritative discussion of the events of the first crisis as viewed from Washington. Written with the rare benefit of special access to U.S. government documents and incorporating the personal experiences of its three authors, all of whom played significant roles in the events of 1993-94, Going Critical recounts in detail the options that the Clinton administration considered at every stage of the story -- and thus should prove invaluable to the Bush administration today.


Although Going Critical seems to have been written with an eye toward justifying the Agreed Framework as serving the U.S. national interest, its authors do not spin the story so as to defend the administration they served. Instead, Wit, Poneman, and Gallucci methodically recount every stage of their deliberations. Going Critical offers a detailed examination of the workings (and limitations) of the interagency process involved with trying to resolve a nuclear dispute and highlights challenges inherent in merging often radically different priorities into an integrated policy.

To their credit, the authors straightforwardly reveal the biases and problems in the Clinton administration's approach, even while they aggressively defend the logic that led to the final deal, which they describe as the least bad option. Keenly aware of the stakes, including the real possibility of military escalation, the Clinton team felt profound relief when it was finally able to gain essential concessions from its tough North Korean counterparts -- even though these concessions were nowhere near enough to satisfy Seoul, Tokyo, and critics in Washington who opposed all concessions to Pyongyang. Indeed, the Agreed Framework was unpopular from the start and contested at every stage of its implementation. But as the authors point out, it also managed to keep North Korea from immediately going nuclear and it avoided a war -- one that would have been costly for all sides.

There were two critical flaws with the American approach in 1993 and 1994, however, as the book -- not to mention the intervening years -- makes clear. First, although U.S. officials did convince the North Koreans to "can" and store their spent nuclear fuel, they were unable to persuade them to give up their nuclear components entirely, as they did with Kazakhstan and Ukraine. This failure gave the North Koreans easy access to spent nuclear fuel that could be reprocessed, which has proved to be their most significant source of leverage in the current standoff.

The Clinton administration also erred by allowing North Korea to delay its return to the nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) by more than five years. This ambiguity in Pyongyang's status under the NPT made it much easier for North Korea to later declare, in January 2003, that it was no longer a party to that treaty and to exclude the International Atomic Energy Agency (which administers the NPT) from any role in the standoff. Wit, Poneman, and Gallucci assert that North Korea would not have accepted a return to full compliance with the NPT in 1994, but subsequent events have shown that these concessions were nonetheless a mistake; the Clinton administration should have pushed harder for subsequent revisions. Instead, within a year of the signing of the Agreed Framework, Washington had put the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization (KEDO), which administered the deal, on autopilot, and KEDO officials were left complaining that it was harder to get sign-offs from the United States than from Japan or South Korea. By 1998, under pressure from Congress, the Clinton administration reluctantly named former Defense Secretary William Perry as a special coordinator for policy toward North Korea in an attempt to salvage the process. But Perry's efforts only deferred the collapse of the framework until the end of the Clinton administration.


Republican critics such as Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) have charged that "the [Clinton] administration could have given less and received more" in 1994. The same thinking informs the Bush administration's current approach to North Korea, embodied in its call for "complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantlement" (known as CVID) as the only long-term solution to North Korea's nuclear weapons threat. According to Washington, anything short of CVID would leave open the possibility of a third North Korean nuclear crisis in the future. It is far from clear, however, whether the Bush administration has the tools, the attention span, or the temperament necessary to assemble the kind of regional consensus needed to achieve this goal.

To be fair, the Bush administration has learned from the last Korean crisis that a region-wide approach is necessary. The establishment of the six-party talks in August of 2003, which included China, Japan, Russia, and South Korea as well as North Korea and the United States, was thus a positive improvement on the bilateral approach used by the Clinton administration. Going Critical clearly illustrates the risks and burdens inherent in the Clinton approach, under which the United States sought to carry alone the full weight of negotiations with North Korea, indirectly representing the international community and allies such as Japan and South Korea -- allies whose security interests were directly at stake. A decade ago, China was also still too closely tied to North Korea to play the kind of active mediating role it has this time.

Although the Bush administration has persuaded the other outside participants in the six-party talks to back CVID rhetorically, however, it has not been able to secure a working consensus on exactly what CVID would require North Korea to do, or how to get there. China, Russia, and South Korea favor signing a second agreed framework based on negotiations with North Korea. But the Bush administration seems uninterested in such an approach, convinced as it is that Pyongyang will dishonor its promises at every opportunity. If Washington truly opposes negotiation with North Korea, however, it needs to offer an alternative, such as coercive diplomacy. But so far, it has done little on that front either. The recently announced Proliferation Security Initiative and Illicit Activities Initiative may help limit North Korea's money counterfeiting, missile sales, and drug trafficking activities. But any successful coercive approach will require active Chinese and South Korean cooperation -- something Washington has yet to secure.

The Bush administration apparently would rather that North Korea follow the example of Libya, which announced its intention in December 2003 to voluntarily give up its unconventional weapons and allow outside verification. (If Colonel Muammar al-Qaddafi can take such a bold step, some in Washington have reasoned, it should be even easier for a "general" such as Kim Jong Il.) The Libyan model is particularly attractive to Washington because it is the only way to guarantee sufficiently intrusive access to ensure real disarmament. It should also appeal to North Korea, since it is the only case of nuclear disarmament that has not also involved regime change. In addition, the Libyan path seems to offer serious economic benefits (in the form of a lifting of sanctions and increased trade), which Pyongyang covets. So far, however, the Bush administration has pushed for a sort of "Libyan model plus" with North Korea, the "plus" being requirements that North Korea also give up its other illicit activities, transform its economy, end its severe restrictions on and monitoring of food assistance, and become a "normal state." Such steps, however, would so loosen Kim Jong Il's political control that they would be tantamount to regime change. And North Korea is so isolated that no third country can play the honest-broker role that the United Kingdom played for Libya, serving as a proxy for the United States in preliminary disarmament negotiations.

Going Critical illustrates just how important it is that any approach toward North Korea involve Japan and South Korea; excluding these two countries was perhaps the biggest mistake made by the Clinton administration, and they remain weak links that North Korea has consistently tried to exploit. Much has changed, however, in ten years. A decade ago Pyongyang marginalized and insulted the South Korean leadership at every opportunity. Today, however, North Korea reserves its rhetorical blasts for President Bush while it woos South Korea, encouraging it, for example, to forge new economic ties by establishing an industrial zone in the border city of Kaesong. In return, South Korea has started cajoling the United States to take negotiations with North Korea seriously. If the six-party talks are to make progress, Washington and Seoul will have to repair their alliance, narrow their differences, and make a firm and unified stand to ensure that Pyongyang does not exploit their differences over whether to risk a military confrontation.

Although U.S. allies are important, the authors of Going Critical argue convincingly that Washington cannot contract out its foreign policy on an interest as vital as assuring nuclear nonproliferation. Given the alternatives -- containment, military action, and regime change -- the authors argue that negotiation remains the most effective way to secure U.S. interests in the region. The Bush administration's failure thus far to take such talks seriously enough has allowed the steady expansion of North Korea's nuclear program -- a striking lapse, especially given new intelligence showing that North Korea poses a much greater threat to the United States than Iraq ever did. The only feasible approach to North Korea today is one that effectively integrates a range of threats and incentives and involves all the participants in the six-party talks. Achieving that objective will require full U.S. participation and sustained White House leadership. As Going Critical shows, Washington has been able to muster that kind of focus in the past, narrowly averting a crisis in 1994 through top-level attention supported by effective interagency coordination. Since then, however, North Korea has benefited from American neglect and inattention. If this lack of focus persists, the second Korean nuclear crisis could reach a disastrous climax. Simply waiting for regime change -- in Pyongyang, or in Washington -- is not a sufficient strategy.

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