In the summer of 1994 the Clinton administration faced the gravest crisis on the Korean peninsula since the signing of the armistice agreement in 1953. The genesis of the crisis had come in 1992 when Pyongyang concluded an agreement accepting the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) nuclear safeguards in accordance with the provisions of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). Subsequent IAEA inspections discovered inconsistencies between Pyongyang’s initial declaration regarding its nuclear program and IAEA findings. Pyongyang then threatened to withdraw from the NPT triggering an international crisis.
Secretary of Defense William Perry recalled in his 1999 memoir Preventive Defense that by June of 1994 “We knew we were poised on the brink of a war that might involve weapons of mass destruction.” The United States had, according to press reports, drawn up plans for an air strike on Pyongyang’s Yongbyon nuclear reactor. The surgical strike was intended to prevent the re-processing of plutonium from the reactor’s spent fuel rods which could be used in the construction of an estimated half dozen nuclear weapons. A 1999 CNN report on the crisis quoted Pentagon sources as estimating that such a strike would have led to all-out war with as many as one million casualties.
Then a last-minute phone call from former President Jimmy Carter, on a private North Korean visit, to chief U.S. negotiator Robert Gallucci in Washington reported a breakthrough in private discussions with aging North Korean Great Leader Kim Il-sung. Carter was quoted as telling CNN on June 15, 1994 that “I look upon this, this commitment by Kim Il-sung as being very important.” (Kim would die of heart failure in less than a month, but the imprimatur of North Korea’s god-like founder on a proposed nuclear agreement as one of his last official actions assured its universal acceptance in Pyongyang.)
The subsequent agreement, known as the Agreed Framework, signed on October 21, 1994, called for the freezing of Pyongyang’s reprocessing of plutonium from spent fuel rods at North Korea’s Soviet era graphite 5-megawatt nuclear reactor in exchange for the provision of heavy fuel oil and the construction of two light-water reactors to meet North Korean energy needs. The United States and North Korea also pledged to move toward normalization of political and economic relations.
A key flaw in the Agreed Framework, apparent from the beginning, was the stipulation that the estimated 16,000 spent fuel rods would be stored on-site in North Korea until all provisions of the agreement were finalized. Thus, when the Agreed Framework broke down a decade later, Pyongyang still had access to the plutonium in these spent fuel rods. The only airtight guarantee that North Korea would not ultimately make use of the reprocessed plutonium from its Yongbyon facility for its weapons program would have been to remove the spent fuel rods from North Korea and to have international authorities dispose of them.
There was an even more important incentive for Pyongyang to reach the 1994 decision to freeze its plutonium reprocessing activities than either Great Leader Kim Il-sung’s imprimatur or its continued access to the spent fuel rods. The North Koreans knew by the time the Agreed Framework was inked in October 1994 that they had a second, surreptitious pathway for the acquisition of nuclear weapons. Pyongyang thus never had any intention of adhering to the stated goal of “peace and security on a nuclear-free Korean peninsula.” Pyongyang intended from day one to go forward with the continued acquisition of weapons of mass destruction via a second route.
BBC security correspondent Gordon Corera’s 2006 book Shopping for Bombs: Nuclear Proliferation, Global Insecurity and the Rise and Fall of the A. Q. Khan Network provides details on how Pakistani scientist A.Q. Khan and his arms network provided Pyongyang with the centrifuges and technology necessary for producing nuclear weapons. In an October 12, 2006, interview about his book with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Corera was asked what motivated Khan, the father of the “Islamic bomb,” into selling nuclear secrets to “the distinctly non-Islamic state of North Korea?” Corera responded, “It actually looks like he was doing a trade. He was trading North Korean missile technology for Pakistani centrifuge nuclear technology. Partly . . . to bolster his own position in Pakistan by being able to come back and say look at this missile technology I’m delivering to our country.”
A November 28, 2006, Congressional Research Service report, Weapons of Mass Destruction: Trade Between North Korea and Pakistan, spells out that Pyongyang had made its deal with Islamabad in 1993—fully one year before the Agreed Framework. These arrangements led to Pyongyang’s acquisition of highly enriched uranium technology in exchange for missile transfers. The CRS report states that “In the 1980s, as North Korea began successfully exporting ballistic missiles and technology, Pakistan began producing highly enriched uranium (HEU) at the Khan Research Laboratory. Benazir Bhutto’s 1993 visit to Pyongyang seems to have kicked off serious missile cooperation, but it is harder to pinpoint the genesis of Pakistan’s nuclear cooperation with North Korea. By the time Pakistan probably needed to pay North Korea for its purchases of medium-range No Dong missiles in the mid-1990s (upon which its Ghauri missiles are based), Pakistan’s cash reserves were low. Pakistan could offer North Korea a route to nuclear weapons using HEU that could circumvent the plutonium-focused 1994 Agreed Framework and be difficult to detect.”
American negotiators, including Gallucci, were aware that the Agreed Framework in no way precluded Pyongyang from procuring nuclear weapons via a second path. The CRS report includes the following footnote: “Ambassador Robert Gallucci, who negotiated the Agreed Framework, told a roundtable convened at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in 2003 that: ‘I would have to say that, yes, the Agreed Framework is less than perfect and there are vulnerabilities. . . . The most glaring problem was that we were trying to stop the nuclear weapons program and we focused on the existing weapons program in North Korea based upon plutonium. . . . But we did not achieve any additional transparency. We had no new inspection regime and all of us were keenly aware that one could build nuclear weapons not only with the existing facilities, but also with new, secret ones. I was asked in testimony in 1995, and many times privately by Senators and Congressmen, whether North Korea could cheat. I said, yes, they could and if they did it would probably be in the area of enrichment and the technology would be centrifuge. This was common sense.’”
Indications that North Korea was involved in highly enriched uranium processing became so compelling that an October 2002 U.S. delegation to Pyongyang led by Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly informed the North Koreans of a U.S. intelligence assessment that they had an active, second-track, concealed nuclear program—the CIA had reportedly concluded that by mid-decade North Korea could produce two HEU atomic bombs annually. The American side reported that the North Korean officials initially acknowledged the existence of an HEU program but Pyongyang later vehemently denied this. Some in the Washington policy establishment, who contended that President George W. Bush was out to get Pyongyang because of his previous State of the Union “axis of evil” remarks, asserted that the weak Korean language interpreter capabilities of the U.S. team had led to a “misunderstanding” during the diplomatic confrontation.
The CRS report noted that President Bush himself later publicly weighed in on the issue: “President Bush, in a speech that focused on proliferation at the National Defense University on February 11, 2004, stated that Khan and others sold ‘nuclear technologies and equipment to outlaw regimes that stretched from North Africa to the Korean Peninsula.’ Bush further stated that ‘Khan and his associates provided Iran and Libya and North Korea with designs for Pakistan’s older centrifuges, as well as designs for more advanced and efficient models.” A further indication of Pyongyang’s continuing HEU program was reported by the Financial Times in January 2009. In discussing materials that North Korea had provided to the outgoing Bush administration as part of a last-minute attempt to verify North Korea’s denuclearization, the FT noted: “In recent weeks, however, government scientists have determined that particles found on documents and aluminum tubes received from North Korea as part of the verification process contained HEU.”
The “smoking gun” on the covert HEU program was revealed by American scientist Siegfried Hecker, former director of the Los Alamos laboratory, in his December 9, 2010, article for Foreign Affairs, “What I Found in North Korea: Pyongyang’s Plutonium Is No Longer the Only Problem.” Hecker wrote that during a November 2010 visit to North Korea: “North Korean scientists showed me and my colleagues, John W. Lewis and Robert Carlin, a small, recently completed, industrial-scale uranium-enrichment facility and an experimental light-water reactor (LWR) under construction. I was stunned by the sight of 2,000 centrifuges in two cascade halls and an ultramodern control room.” He also noted that “it is highly likely that a parallel covert facility capable of HEU production exists elsewhere in the country.”
Hecker mentioned a possible Iranian connection in his article: “Washington cannot rule out North Korean cooperation with Iran, since the two have collaborated closely on missile technologies before. North Korea’s centrifuge facilities appear to be more sophisticated than what Iran has shown to international inspectors, but it is well known that Tehran is developing next-generation centrifuges. Moreover, North Korea has much greater experience in uranium processing and reactor technologies than Iran, raising concerns that such expertise could flow from Pyongyang to Tehran.”
On October 21, 1994, in announcing the signing of the Agreed Framework, President Bill Clinton stated: “This is a good deal for the United States. North Korea will freeze and then dismantle its nuclear program. South Korea and our other allies will be better protected. The entire world will be safer as we slow the spread of nuclear weapons.”
Two decades later, North Korea has conducted three underground nuclear tests: In 2006 and 2009 with plutonium-based weaponry and in 2013 with a device that was either plutonium or HEU-based. In September 2013, 38 North, a blog linked to the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, reported that satellite imagery of the Yongbyon nuclear facility, showing steam escaping from a building, indicated that North Korea had likely restarted its reactor. BBC reported in May of this year that “The North is believed to possess enough weapons-grade plutonium for at least six bombs.” An April 25 Chicago Tribune editorial carried a higher estimate stating the U.S. consensus “says North Korea has 10 to 16 bombs plus the ability to produce several more each year.” The Tribune reported that Beijing had an even higher estimate for North Korean weaponry of 20 nuclear warheads “with the capacity to have double that number by next year.”
Twenty years of nuclear negotiations lie in a heap of ashes: the Agreed Framework (Clinton), the Six-Party Talks (Bush), and the Leap Day Deal (Obama) all failed to stop North Korea’s forward march into the ranks of declared nuclear-weapons states. Secretary of State John Kerry’s assertion to the South Korean Foreign Minister in April 2013 that a nuclear-armed North Korea is “unacceptable” appears a lot like the American (and Korean) saying about “closing the barn door after the horse has bolted.” The February 2015 Obama administration commitment to a “nuclear free Korean peninsula” is seen by friends and allies in the region as so much bluster. North Korea is given de facto recognition by its Asian neighbors as a belligerent, nuclear-armed state that threatens regional peace and stability.
The diplomatic focus has now shifted away from North Korean denuclearization—as no one expects the paranoid yet wily regime to ever willingly surrender its nuclear arsenal. The new concerns are about weapon miniaturization for loading on to a nuclear war head, long-range missile delivery capability that could potentially reach this country’s West Coast, and proliferation through the sale of a nuclear device to a rogue regime or even an international terrorist organization. President Clinton’s 1994 pledge that “the entire world will be safer” looks, in retrospect like pie-in-the-sky rhetoric as Kim Jong-un further expands his nuclear arsenal and escalates his threats. Is there any reason to expect a different outcome from the Iran deal?
Dennis P. Halpin served as a foreign service officer specializing in East Asia for over two decades and as the Asian policy adviser to the House Foreign Affairs Committee from 2000 to 2013. He is currently a visiting scholar at the U.S.-Korea Institute at SAIS and an adviser to the Poblete Analysis Group.