As the Obama administration rushes into a nuclear deal with Iran, it pays to remember the last time the United States struck a deal with a rogue regime in order to constrain that state’s nuclear program and the aftermath of that supposed success.
Bill Clinton had been president barely a month when North Korea announced that it would no longer allow International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspections, followed shortly thereafter by an announcement that it would withdraw from the NPT altogether within a matter of months. If Kim Il-sung expected Washington to flinch, he was right. The State Department aimed to keep North Korea within the NPT at almost any price. Chief U.S. negotiator Robert Gallucci and his aides explained in their book Going Critical, “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.” Unwilling to take any path that could lead to military action, Clinton’s team sought to talk Pyongyang away from nuclear defiance, no matter that talking and the inevitable concessions that followed legitimized Pyongyang’s brinkmanship.
As with President Obama relieving Iran of the burden of six United Nations Security Council resolutions which demanded a complete cessation of enrichment, Clinton’s willingness to negotiate North Korea’s nuclear compliance was itself a concession. After all, the 1953 Armistice required Pyongyang to reveal all military facilities and, in case of dispute, enable the Military Armistice Commission to determine the purpose of suspect facilities. By making weaker frameworks the new baseline, Clinton let North Korea off the hook before talks even began.
Just as Israeli (and Saudi and Emirati and Egyptian and Kuwaiti and Bahraini) leaders express frustration with the Obama administration regarding its naiveté and unwillingness to consult, so too did South Korea at the time chafe at Clinton’s arrogance. South Korean President Kim Young Sam complained to journalists that North Korea was leading America on and manipulating negotiators “to buy time.” And in a pattern that repeats today with regard to Iran, the IAEA held firmer to the demand that North Korea submit to real inspections than did Washington. The issue came to a head in September 1993 after the State Department pressured the IAEA to compromise on limited inspections.
In the face of Pyongyang’s defiance, Clinton was also wary that coercion could be a slippery slope to war. Just as President Obama and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel instructed U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf not to stand firm but rather to retreat if probed or pushed by Iran, Clinton sought to mollify Pyongyang, for example cancelling the joint U.S.–South Korea military exercise in 1994. Adding insult to injury, the Clinton administration criticized the South Korean government for being unwilling to compromise. Indeed, everything the Obama administration has done with regard to Israel over the past year—with the exception, perhaps, of the classless chickensh-t comment—was ripped right from the Clinton playbook two decades before when the White House sought to silence Seoul.
There followed months of baseless optimism in Washington, followed by disappointment quickly supplanted by denial. At one point, when it looked like Kim Il-sung’s intransigence might actually lead to war, former President Jimmy Carter visited Pyongyang and, whether cleared to or not, made concessions which diffused the situation. It was the diplomatic equivalent of Obama’s voided redlines. Nightline host Ted Koppel observed on May 18, 1994, “this administration is becoming notorious … for making threats and then backing down.”
On July 8, 1994, a heart attack felled Kim Il-sung. Kim Jong-il, his eldest son, took over. Negotiations progressed quickly. Gallucci and his team promised an escalating series of incentives—reactors, fuel oil, and other economic assistance. They kicked inspections of North Korea’s suspect plutonium sites years down the line.
What had begun as North Korean intransigence had netted Pyongyang billions of dollars in aid; it would go down in history as the largest reward for cheating and reneging on agreements until Obama granted Iran $11 billion in sanctions relief just for coming to the table. Columnist William Safire traced the steps of concessions on North Korea. “Mr. Clinton’s opening position was that untrustworthy North Korea must not be allowed to become a nuclear power,” he observed, but Clinton “soon trimmed that to say it must not possess nuclear bombs, and stoutly threatened sanctions if North Korea did not permit inspections of nuclear facilities at Yongbyon, where the CIA and KGB agree nuclear devices have been developed. But as a result of Clinton’s Very Good Deal Indeed, IAEA inspectors are denied entry to those plants for five years.” And Sen. John McCain, for his part, lamented that Clinton “has extended carrot after carrot, concession after concession, and pursued a policy of appeasement based … on the ill-founded belief that North Koreans really just wanted to be part of the community of nations.” Again, the parallels between Clinton’s and Obama’s assumptions about the desire of enemies to reform were consistent.
Clinton wasn’t going to broker any criticism of what he believed was a legacy-defining diplomatic triumph, all the more so when the criticism came from abroad. On October 7, 1994, South Korean President Kim Young Sam 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. His outburst drew Clinton’s ire. He became the Netanyahu of his day. Meanwhile, the U.S. and North Korea signed the Agreed Framework. Gallucci and his team were “exhilarated.” They later bragged they “had overcome numerous obstacles in the negotiations with the North; survived the intense, sometimes strained collaboration with Seoul and the International Atomic Energy Agency; and marshaled and sustained an often unwieldy international coalition in opposition to the nuclear challenge, all under close and often critical scrutiny at home.”
Today, by some estimates, North Korea is well on its way to having 100 nuclear weapons and is steadily developing the ballistic capability to deliver them. Iran’s nuclear negotiators have cited North Korea’s negotiating strategy as a model to emulate rather than an example to condemn. Meanwhile, Obama has relied on many of the same negotiators to advance his deal with Iran.
The State Department has never conducted a lessons learned exercise about what went wrong with the North Korea deal. Perhaps it’s time. Diplomatic responsibility and national security demand it.