Victor Gilinsky offers a less optimistic view of North Korea’s negotiating tactics and nuclear program

By Victor Gilinsky | March 10, 2023

North Korea's leader Kim Jong Un oversees a missile launch at an undisclosed location in North Korea. Undated photo released on October 10, 2022 by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA).

Editor’s note: This commentary is a response to a February 20 Bulletin article, “Interview: Siegfried Hecker on two decades of missed chances to deal with North Korea’s nuclear program.

I read the Bulletin’s recent interview with Sig Hecker about his new book, Hinge Points. As the introduction to the interview points out, he’s had more access to the North Korean nuclear world than any American, so we need to listen to him. But there is a lot more to the story than Hecker says, and it is much less favorable to North Korea.

He starts in 2003, a year before his first visit, with what he describes as the Bush White House’s determination to kill the 1994 Agreed Framework, the Clinton administration deal under which the North agreed to freeze its plutonium production in return for the promise of two big light water reactors, plus other aid. He thinks the Bush crowd killed it because it believed North Korea “should never be allowed to have a civilian nuclear program” and did so on the pretext that the North was enriching uranium. He thinks this was a mistake—it led to the North’s withdrawal from the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) in 2003 and its launch into nuclear bomb-building.

It sounds as if we screwed up badly, which in a sense we did, but in a way different than Hecker describes, and I think it’s important to remember what happened. To begin with, the Clinton Agreed Framework deal was enormously generous. For freezing a 5 megawatt-electric (equivalent) plutonium production reactor and its fuel facilities, along with a construction site for a 50 megawatt-electric reactor, the North was to get two 1000 megawatt-electric light water reactors, then worth about $4 billion. Shortly afterward, I asked one of the US negotiators, “why so generous?” “I don’t know,” he said, “that’s what they asked for.”

But, for all this generosity, the Clinton negotiators included a key International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspection condition on North Korea. Before the delivery of the key nuclear components for the light water reactors, North Korea had to allow the IAEA to inspect two contested sites to which it had previously blocked access. Ergo, no inspection, no light water reactors and consequently no Agreed Framework. By the time the Bush administration addressed the issue, after 2000, it became clear that North Korea was not going to comply. At that point, to continue the Agreed Framework, the United States would have had to swallow North Korea’s violation of its IAEA inspection agreement.

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To fill in the background, you have to go back at least to 1985, when North Korea joined the NPT (under Soviet pressure). It was contemptuous of IAEA inspection from the start. It did not supply the IAEA with the required initial material inventory to permit inspection to start within 18 months of accession to the treaty. And it managed to put off the initial IAEA inspection for another five years—until 1992.

When the 1992 inspection finally occurred, the North would not allow the IAEA to inspect two sites the agency believed held clues to separation of plutonium beyond what the North reported in its inventory. The IAEA Board of Governors concluded North Korea was in noncompliance with its inspection agreement and thus, in effect, in violation of the treaty. In response, in 1993 North Korea announced it was exercising the NPT’s 90-day withdrawal provision.

It is important that in parallel with these events the United States pulled its nuclear weapons out of South Korea in 1991 and scaled back annual US-South Korea military exercises, and in a hopeful gesture canceled them entirely for 1992. Under US sponsorship, the two Koreas signed a 1991 agreement whose nuclear provisions included that neither of them would seek nuclear weapons.

Above all, the United States wanted to keep North Korea from leaving the NPT. The North stopped the NPT withdrawal clock at day 89 with a joint US-North Korea communiqué in which “Both sides recognize the desirability of the [North Korea’s] intention to replace its graphite-moderated reactors and associated facilities with light water moderated reactors.” Pyongyang wanted modern technology, and Washington preferred that North Korea rely on light water reactors because they did not require fuel reprocessing and extraction of plutonium. There was still a problem; North Korea was still refusing the contested inspections, and the United States could not itself legally supply a reactor to a country that was in violation of IAEA safeguards.

The Clinton administration got around this obstacle by persuading South Korea to build and pay for the reactors and the IAEA to agree to postpone the two contested inspections until LWR construction was well along. The United States was thus bending over backwards to shield North Korea from the consequences of its treaty violation. But, under the Agreed Framework, to get operational light water reactors, the North still had to allow the IAEA to inspect the two contested sites by the time key nuclear components were ready for installation.

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When the Bush administration arrived in 2001, light water reactor construction was well along, and there was still no sign the North would comply with its promise to allow the two inspections. North Korea seemed to be counting on the United States to ignore the initial violation to maintain the relationship, a not unreasonable expectation on its part after having successfully bullied the system for so long. (After a Stanford talk he gave years ago, I asked Bill Perry, who had been Clinton’s defense secretary, how he regarded the Agreed Framework requirement for inspection of disputed sites before delivery of key nuclear components; he said he regretted the inclusion of the provision in the Agreed Framework.)

It may well be that the Bush administration canceled the Agreed Framework out of sheer hostility to Communist North Korea. Still, it was reasonable to be concerned about a North Korean civilian nuclear program when you couldn’t be sure about its continued adherence to IAEA safeguards. The plutonium production capacity of the two light water reactors would have been greater than that of all the reactors North Korea operated, had under construction, and was planning. The critical point here is that US insistence on adherence to the Agreed Framework’s inspection provision would have stopped the light water reactor project, because North Korea was hanging tough.

In any case, in 2003, with light water reactor construction stopped, the North decided to withdraw from the NPT and did so by giving one day’s notice, arguing that it was just completing the withdrawal process it had earlier frozen at day 89. Whether a country could withdraw from the treaty this way and while it was in violation was left undecided.

Hecker’s recommendation today, after North Korea’s extensive building and testing of bombs and long-range rockets—in the face of many major Security Council sanction resolutions—is that, in the hope of converting its military programs back to civilian ones, we drop our “refusal” to allow North Korea to have civilian nuclear power and space programs. What can I say other than that he has a very optimistic outlook?

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