What Should We Do with the U.S.-North Korea Agreed Framework?

I worked on the 1994 US-North Korea Agreed Framework at the U.S. State Department for seven years, first with Ambassador Robert L. Gallucci who negotiated the agreement and then as the official most involved in its implementation. I continue to believe the agreement, which ended the confrontation between the United States, South Korea and North Korea over its nuclear weapons program, was a significant diplomatic achievement. But the time has come to reconsider its terms.

Under the 1994 agreement, Pyongyang promised to freeze and eventually dismantle its nuclear weapons program as well as to allow international inspections to ensure it did not have a hidden weapons program. North Korea’s nuclear program, if left unchecked, could have produced tens of nuclear weapons by today, threatening the peace and stability of Northeast Asia. In return, Washington, Seoul and Tokyo promised to provide Pyongyang with two new nuclear reactors—not suited for bomb-making—as well as annual shipments of heavy fuel oil to tide the North over until the first reactor was completed. The pace of getting rid of the North’s existing nuclear weapons program was linked to the speed in which the reactors were provided. The original intention was to finish implementing the agreement sometime around 2003.

The problem is implementation is at least five years behind schedule and that could get worse. Part of the blame goes to North Korea whose bad behavior helped delay the reactor project, particularly in 1996 when its spy submarine ran aground in the South. Part of the blame goes to South Korea which, under President Kim Yong-sam, did everything possible to prevent improvements in US-North Korean relations, and that included lukewarm support for the reactor project. But part of the blame also goes to the Clinton Administration which became increasingly disinterested in the Agreed Framework, particularly in the face of periodic resistance from Congressional Republicans. As a result, delays have mounted and doubts have grown about whether implementation will ever be completed.

Fixing the Agreed Framework means, at the very least, doing everything possible to ensure that implementation is no longer delayed. But our main objective should be to accelerate its implementation. In doing so, Seoul and Washington should be crystal clear about their primary purpose. It is not to provide North Korea with energy to rebuild its economy although, given the expenditure of financial resources, we should make sure it is done as efficiently as possible. Rather, the main purpose is to secure a nuclear free North Korea as quickly as possible by accelerating the provision of electricity.

Achieving this objective may require a number of steps. First, Washington and Seoul should revisit a proposal reportedly made last year by the Clinton Administration that conventional power plants, which could be built more quickly, be substituted for at least one of the nuclear plants. Both countries should also discuss the possibility of throwing into the negotiating mix Seoul’s current proposal to provide the North with electricity. In considering these options, difficult political issues will have to be addressed, such as how will the North react to these proposals and are they acceptable to public opinion in South Korea and Japan since both are footing most of the bill for implementation.

Second, acceleration will require North Korean concessions. First, Pyongyang should agree to the rapid removal of nuclear weapons material now located at its installation at Yonbyon. That material, sufficient to produce up to five nuclear weapons, was originally slated under the terms of the Agreed Framework to be removed by the end of this decade. Second, North Korea should begin to cooperate with the International Atomic Energy Agency to prepare for that organization’s examination of its nuclear past. For the past five years, it has refused to cooperate, undermining the IAEA’s ability to eventually conduct an effective examination. Third, the North should agree to allow the IAEA to use the more extensive inspection measures now accepted by the international community once the examination begins. The current expectation is Pyongyang will insist on the less extensive measures used by the international community up until the early 1990’s which could prove to be inadequate.

Technical fixes are necessary but we must also recognize that problems with the Agreed Framework run much deeper. The fact is both Washington and Seoul treated the agreement as if it was someone else’s child, not their own. In Seoul, there has been an inexplicable and wrong view that the North’s nuclear program is really Washington’s concern because it threatens our global non-proliferation policy. In fact, Washington’s main concern is that North Korea’s nuclear program represents a direct security threat to South Korea and to American and South Korean forces defending that country. Given that potential threat, South Korea should also be concerned.

The Clinton Administration’s disinterest in implementation was manifested in any number of ways. It never succeeded in securing funds for the multi-billion dollar reactor project in spite of promises to South Korea and Japan. It never fully funded its main responsibility, the heavy fuel oil shipments, resulting in chronic borrowing and debt for KEDO, the organization responsible for implementing the Agreed Framework. It never supported the International Atomic Energy Agency’s efforts through five years of unproductive negotiations with Pyongyang from 1995 until today to begin preparations for its examination to determine the North was nuclear free. Finally, the review of US policy towards North Korea conducted by former Secretary of Defense Perry in 1998 did not address problems with the Agreed Framework.

What is needed in Washington and Seoul is a renewed political commitment to this agreement or it will continue to suffer no matter which technical fixes are made. While it would be ironic in light of past Republican criticism, the Bush Administration is well positioned to provide such a renewed commitment through not just making technical fixes to the agreement but also by seeking additional funding from Congress for implementation. As for Seoul, a renewed commitment to the agreement and its important security objectives should win the Kim Administration broader support for its policy of rapproachement with the North.

President Kim’s visit to Washington will provide a new opportunity for the two countries to begin this process of reinvigorating the Agreed Framework. I hope both the United States and South Korea will take advantage of this opportunity as they chart a course for dealing with North Korea.