Today marks the 20th anniversary of the Clinton administration’s signing of the Agreed Framework with North Korea. The lead up to the agreement and its aftermath should be a “teachable moment” for all those in the Obama administration intent on reaching a nuclear deal whatever the costs. After all, just as in 1994, the White House has committed itself to reach a deal with a rogue state with nuclear ambitions, regardless of the cost. White House actions suggest a belief that a bad deal would be better than no deal. Indeed, when researching my book on the history of American diplomacy with rogue regimes—research that took me to Korea—what became clear was that the Clinton negotiating team knew they had a bad deal but didn’t care. Communist regimes were collapsing around the globe, and so negotiators confided in private that they needn’t worry about the details, because just how long could the North Korean dictatorship last? In hindsight, the diplomatic process with North Korea was a disaster. After all, it has been against the backdrop of engagement and negotiated agreements with North Korea that the communist state has developed nuclear bombs and ballistic missiles capable of reaching the United States. Far from ending the threat from North Korea, it has been against the backdrop of often-desperate diplomacy that the threat became worse.
What happened? Bill Clinton had been president barely a month when the North Korean regime decided to test the new president. It refused to allow IAEA inspections, and soon after announced that it would withdraw from the NPT in three months’ time. Kim Il Sung expected Washington to flinch, and he was right. The State Department aimed to keep North Korea within the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty at almost any price. Robert (“Bob”) Gallucci and his colleagues later explained, “If North Korea could walk away from the treaty’s obligations with impunity at the very moment its nuclear program appeared poised for weapons production, it would have dealt a devastating blow from which the treaty might never recover.” Preserving the Treaty – even if that meant covering up the fiction of its effectiveness – trumped all else. This reaction played into Pyongyang’s hands. The scramble to preserve the NPT distracted the United States from North Korea’s greater interest: preventing inspectors from accessing sites that would demonstrate weaponization work.
Clinton’s team, unwilling to take any path that could lead to military action, sought to talk Pyongyang down from its nuclear defiance. Talking meant legitimizing brinkmanship. Sparking and riding crises became Pyongyang’s interest. Clinton’s willingness, meanwhile, to negotiate North Korea’s nuclear compliance was a concession, albeit one to which Clinton was oblivious. The 1953 armistice agreement demanded that Pyongyang reveal all military facilities and, in case of dispute, enable the Military Armistice Commission to determine the purpose of suspect facilities. By making weaker nonproliferation frameworks the new baseline, Clinton let North Korea off the hook before talks even began. Indeed, two decades later, Obama has done much the same thing with Iran: The United Nations Security Council resolutions were clear with respect to Iran’s obligations, but for the sake of compromise, Obama allowed Iran wiggle room to which it wasn’t entitled. Iran responded predictably: Given an inch, it took a mile.
Back to North Korea: As the clock ticked down on North Korea’s threat to leave the NPT, Pyongyang’s bluster and defiance increased, but Galluci’s team saw progress simply because talks continued. North Korea’s team played their American counterparts like a fiddle. Once talks began, Pyongyang recognized that the State Department’s goal always changed from protecting national security to simply keeping talks alive. If process trumped peace, then why make the final step to resolve the core conflict?
It was against the backdrop of North Korea’s refusal to allow International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections that talk turned to providing the communist kingdom with supposed proliferation-proof light-water reactors. Galluci agreed to “support” their construction, a concession that came absent any North Korean movement to allow IAEA inspection of suspect sites. To American diplomats, this became a “step forward.”
Just as with Iran now, the IAEA held firmer to the demands for North Korean compliance than did American negotiators who feared too strict a verification and inspection regimen might undercut the possibility of a deal. When Clinton’s national security team met to discuss North Korea against the backdrop of the president’s unease with North Korea’s continued bluster, they concluded that unease or not, diplomacy was the only real choice. Clinton began almost immediately to mollify Pyongyang. Just as Obama has moved to “de-conflict the Persian Gulf,” Clinton canceled the joint U.S.–South Korea military exercise for 1994, out of deference to North Korea. When North Korean officials balked at intrusive inspections, the Clinton team agreed to negotiate what had once been North Korean commitments. And just as the Obama team bashes Israel and America’s moderate Arab allies for raising concern about Iran, twenty years ago, the Clinton team focused its ire on South Korea for raising concerns about how far American negotiators were prepared to go, and the loop holes they were prepared to tolerate.
When talks resumed, North Korea abandoned any pretense of flexibility on inspections, so the State Department doubled down on conciliation. Its no wonder Iranian negotiators have upheld North Korea as a model to emulate rather than a state to condemn.
Meanwhile, North Korean bluster increased in the face of American conciliation. Pyongyang, for example, threatened to turn Seoul into a “sea of fire.” North Korea also announced that it would remove irradiated fuel rods from Yongbyon, a process that would both eliminate evidence about Pyongyang’s intentions and enable North Korea to separate plutonium. Iran has, in this too, followed suit—eliminating evidence at Parchin knowing full well that the State Department would lose interest in order to keep diplomacy alive.
Clinton wasn’t initially as much of a pushover as his diplomats. But as the president lost patience, Kim Il Sung simply took a step back and promised renewed diplomacy to well meaning but naïve interlocutors. Today with Iran, Thomas Pickering and William Miller simply fulfill the role Jimmy Carter played twenty years ago.
Diplomacy began again, albeit with a new partner. On July 8, 1994, a heart attack felled the immortal North Korean leader, and Kim Jong-il, eldest son and mastermind of past terrorist attacks, assumed command. Negotiations progressed quickly. North Korea wanted compensation for shuttering its reactors and energy assistance until the light-water reactors would come on line. Gallucci and his team agreed. The North Korean team agreed to submit to inspections of suspect plutonium sites, but only after most light-water reactor components had shipped. Only under concerted press questioning did Clinton acknowledge that this might mean North Korea would be inspection-free for five years. What had begun as an illicit North Korean nuclear program had netted the rogue communist regime billions of dollars in aid.
Clinton’s high-stakes engagement had a cost beyond the price tag. On October 7, 1994, President Kim Young Sam of South Korea blasted Clinton’s deal with the North, saying, “If the United States wants to settle with a half-baked compromise and the media wants to describe it as a good agreement, they can. But I think it would bring more danger and peril.” There was nothing wrong with trying to resolve the problem through dialogue, he acknowledged, but the South Koreans knew very well how the North operated. “We have spoken with North Korea more than 400 times. It didn’t get us anywhere. They are not sincere,” Kim said, urging the United States not to “be led on by the manipulations of North Korea.” While Kim Young Sam was right to doubt Pyongyang’s sincerity, his outburst drew Clinton’s ire. The administration did not want any complications to derail a deal, and Clinton was willing to ignore evidence that might undercut the initiative. Two weeks later, Gallucci and Kang signed the Agreed Framework.
That Gallucci’s team believed they had salvaged North Korea’s membership in the Non-Proliferation Treaty was self-delusion. Pyongyang was never been sincere in its membership. North Korean diplomats confided that they had joined only to receive a Soviet reactor, but the Soviet Union collapsed before the Kremlin made good on the deal. Gallucci had been had.
Shortly after oil shipments to North Korea began, Pyongyang began to divert oil to its steel industry in violation of the Agreed Framework. Diplomats chose to see virtue in the regime’s cheating. Although Gallucci and his team acknowledged that North Korea “was willing to look for ways to stretch the limits of or evade the terms of agreements,” they rationalized that the regime’s oil diversion “also demonstrated the North’s ability to turn on a dime and to take surprising steps to resolve potential problems that might undercut its broader interests.” Like Wendy Sherman or Jake Sullivan today with Iran, Gallucci had become so invested in the Agreed Framework’s success that he and his team, behind the scenes, blamed other American officials for pointing out or questioning non-compliance.
Albert Einstein quipped that insanity was conducting the same action repeatedly but expecting different results each time. Twenty years ago today, American negotiators signed an agreement with North Korea in order to constrain that rogue’s nuclear ambitions. The result was an unmitigated failure. And yet, twenty years later the Obama administration is working to replicate the diplomatic disaster with another agreement, no more solid. Just as North Korea destabilizes East Asia twenty years later, so too will Obama’s diplomatic path lead to a nuclear Iran.