August 2017 was a reminder of the scariest, and riskiest, days of the Cold War. All month long, Donald Trump and Kim Jong-un engaged in a bitter war of words that escalated into tit-for-tat displays of military might and ended with mutual threats of mass destruction. The tensions peaked on September 3 with Pyongyang’s stunning announcement that it had conducted its sixth, and largest, nuclear test—this time of a powerful hydrogen bomb—and had the capability to place the bomb onto an intercontinental ballistic missile. With the crisis spinning out of control, the opportunity for the diplomacy and negotiations promised by Trump’s foreign-policy team in recent months seemed to fade with each passing day.
Ironically, the spiral of events began with a hopeful sign on August 15, when Kim uncharacteristically backed down from a highly publicized plan to launch ballistic missiles toward the United States garrison island of Guam. His surprise decision drew approving comments from Trump as well as Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who has been at the forefront of US proposals for diplomacy. He offered that Kim’s “restraint” might be enough to meet the US conditions for talks—a halt to nuclear and missile tests—that he recently laid out in a Wall Street Journal op-ed co-authored with Defense Secretary James Mattis.
But Kim, who has said he will negotiate only if the United States ends its “hostile policy and nuclear threats,” had warned that he would reconsider his missile tests “if the Yankees persist in their extremely dangerous reckless actions.” He was speaking of the US–South Korean military exercises launched on August 21 that, according to press reports, included training runs for a preemptive strike against the North as well as a computerized nuclear war game. To counter this show of force, Pyongyang test-fired three short-range rockets and followed up with a medium-range missile shot over the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido.
Predictably, Kim’s moves sparked a US counter-action—a practice bombing run over Korean skies by Guam-based supersonic B1-B Lancer bombers, aided by four stealth F-35B advanced fighter jets flown from the US Marine base in Iwakuni, Japan. Days later, the North announced that it had developed a hydrogen bomb that could be placed on an ICBM—and, as mentioned, promptly tested the device in a massive underground explosion. Trump responded with a tweet denouncing the North as a “rogue” nation. He then insulted South Korea by calling President Moon Jae-in’s preference for engagement “appeasement,” apparently ruling out the diplomacy sought by his top advisers.
Mattis, who had told reporters the week before that “we’re never out of diplomatic solutions,” quickly assured the public that the administration was in lockstep on Korea. After an emergency meeting at the White House on Sunday, he went on camera to say that Trump would meet more threats with a “massive military response” that would be both “effective and overwhelming.” The United States, he added ominously, is “not looking for the total annihilation” of North Korea but only to end its nuclear program. United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley followed up on Monday, telling the UN Security Council that North Korea was “begging for war” and should be met with the “strongest possible sanctions.” But she left the door open for talks, saying “the time has come for us to exhaust all of our diplomatic means before it’s too late.”
As the gravity of the situation dawned on Washington, the thin reeds of reassurance from Mattis and Haley seemed to suggest that the path of diplomacy and negotiation remains open—barely. “I don’t think that this administration is ideologically opposed to negotiations,” Victor Cha, a former Bush administration official who is about to be named US ambassador to Seoul, told The Nation on Tuesday. But therein lies a major dilemma.
Talking to North Korea is a hard sell in Washington. The predominant view is that direct negotiations are a bad idea because, in the opinion of many officials and pundits, Pyongyang can’t be trusted. Exhibit One for these naysayers is the much-maligned “Agreed Framework” between President Bill Clinton and Kim’s father, Kim Jong-il, which ended the first nuclear crisis with Pyongyang in 1994 and was cited by 64 Democrats in a recent letter to Tillerson as a model for future talks.
“The Clinton administration negotiated that deal, and the North Korean government immediately violated it,” CNN’s John King confidently informed his viewers on July 5, just after the North test-fired an ICBM that could hit the United States. King’s view, which he repeated several times that day without providing a single shred of evidence, became the standard line on CNN and the rest of network television, which consistently blocks voices saying that engagement has worked in the past. This take has also become a mantra for advocates of tough sanctions and regime change.
“Engagement? I’ve been there, done that, and got the T-shirts—all of them failed,” Bruce Klinger, a former CIA official and senior research fellow for northeast Asia at the right-wing Heritage Foundation, told a Washington forum last month of his brief contacts with North Korean officials. Even Christopher Hill, a former US ambassador to Seoul who negotiated the “Six-Party Talks” in 2007 and 2008 for the Bush administration, has jumped into the no-talks camp, proclaiming that further negotiations would only “strengthen a rogue regime’s hand.” Similar arguments were made by three former US officials in interviews with The New York Times last week.
But what if these calculations aren’t true, and the official story is wrong? What exactly did the Agreed Framework do, and how and why did it come apart? Did President Clinton’s agreement really give North Korea the bomb, as many Republicans now claim? What did those 64 Democrats mean when they urged Tillerson to “make a good faith effort to replicate” its successes? A careful review of the 1994 agreement and interviews with former US officials with extensive experience negotiating with Pyongyang reveals that blame for its demise should be equally shared by the United States and North Korea. Because that’s not a popular view, and the risks are so high, it’s important to get the story straight.
The 1994 agreement was the United States’ response to a regional political crisis that began that year when North Korea announced its intention to withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which requires non-nuclear states to agree never to develop or acquire nuclear weapons. Although it had no nuclear weapon, North Korea was producing plutonium, an action that almost led the United States to launch a preemptive strike against its plutonium facility.
That war was averted when Jimmy Carter made a surprise trip to Pyongyang and met with North Korea’s founder and leader at the time, Kim Il-sung (he died a few months later, and his power was inherited by his son, Kim Jong-il). The framework was signed in October 1994, ending “three years of on and off vilification, stalemates, brinkmanship, saber-rattling, threats of force, and intense negotiations,” Park Kun-young, a professor of international relations at Korea Catholic University, wrote in a 2009 history of the negotiations.
In addition to shutting its one operating reactor, Yongbyon, the North also stopped construction of two large reactors “that together were capable of generating 30 bombs’ worth of plutonium a year,” according to Leon V. Sigal, a former State Department official who helped negotiate the 1994 framework and directs a Northeast Asia security project at the Social Science Research Council in New York. Most important for the United States, it remained in the NPT.
In exchange for North Korea’s concessions, the United States agreed to provide 500,000 tons a year of heavy fuel oil to North Korea as well two commercial light-water reactors considered more “proliferation resistant” than the Soviet-era heavy-water facility the North was using. The new reactors were to be built in 2003 by a US/Japanese/South Korean consortium called the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization, or KEDO. (The reactors, however, were never completed).
For Pyongyang, which had been in the economic wilderness since the collapse of the Soviet Union, the biggest prize was the US promise to stop treating the North like an enemy state. Specifically, the two sides agreed to move as rapidly as possible to full diplomatic and economic normalization. Here’s how it played out.
First, the Agreed Framework led North Korea to halt its plutonium-based nuclear-weapons program for over a decade, forgoing enough enrichment to make over 100 nuclear bombs. “What people don’t know is that North Korea made no fissible material whatsoever from 1991 to 2003,” says Sigal. (The International Atomic Energy Agency confirmed in 1994 that the North had ceased production of plutonium three years earlier.) “A lot of this history” about North Korea, Sigal adds with a sigh, “is in the land of make-believe.”
Second, the framework remained in effect well into the Bush administration. In 1998, the State Department’s Rust Deming testified to Congress that “there is no fundamental violation of any aspect of the framework agreement”; four years later, a similar pledge was made by Bush’s then–Secretary of State Colin Powell. “I get really aggravated when I hear people in Congress say the agreement wasn’t worth the paper it was printed on,” says James Pierce, who was on the State Department team led by Robert Gallucci that negotiated the framework. “The bottom line is, there was a lot in the 1994 agreement that worked and continued for quite some years. The assertion, now gospel, that the North Koreans broke it right away is simply not true.”
Third, the framework and the ongoing engagement that resulted allowed the Clinton administration, led by Secretary of Defense William Perry, to launch a remarkable set of talks that nearly led to a final breakthrough with Pyongyang. As the negotiations unfolded, Kim Jong-il made a startling offer: In return for an end to enmity, Pyongyang was prepared to shut down its development, testing, and deployment of all medium- and long-range missiles. But the agreement was never completed. (Wendy Sherman, the top deputy to Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, later wrote that the two sides were “tantalizingly close.”) “In effect, they were willing to trade their missile program for a better relationship” with Washington, Sigal told me. “And this was before they had the nukes!”
Fourth, the United States itself may have violated the framework by delaying the most important part of the agreement for Pyongyang—US oil shipments and the full normalization of political and economic relations. By 1997, Sigal recalls, the North Koreans were complaining bitterly that the United States was slow to deliver its promised oil and stalling on its pledge to end its hostile policies—the very reason Kim Jong-il had signed in the first place. In a House hearing in 1998, Gallucci warned of failure unless the US government did “what it said it would do, which is to take responsibility” for delivery of the oil. “It was against this backdrop—Pyongyang’s growing conviction the US was not living up to its commitments—that the North in 1998 began to explore” other military options, Mike Chinoy, a former CNN reporter and the author of Meltdown: The Inside Story of the North Korean Nuclear Crisis, wrote recently in an incisive article in The Cipher Brief.
Finally, the framework collapsed in 2003 after the Bush administration—which had come to office with grave doubts about the agreement—dredged up US intelligence from the 1990s to accuse the North of starting a highly enriched uranium program as a second avenue to the bomb. (It hadn’t yet, though it was scouting the world for enrichment machinery to use later.) Bush tore up the framework agreement, exacerbating the deterioration in relations he had sparked a year earlier when he named North Korea part of his “axis of evil” in January 2002. In response, the North kicked out the IAEA inspectors and began building what would become its first bomb, in 2006, triggering a second nuclear crisis that continues to this day. “I think they were [cheating] to hedge their bets because we were cheating too,” Lawrence Wilkerson, the chief of staff to Colin Powell in 2002, recently told The Real News.
In other words, the full story is complicated, and blame can easily be cast on both sides. But the results were disastrous, as Sigal summarized in his masterful history of US–North Korean negotiations published last year by the Korean Institute for National Unification and Columbia Law School.
“When President Bush took office, North Korea, thanks to diplomacy, had stopped testing longer-range missiles,” he wrote. “It had less than a bomb’s worth of plutonium and was verifiably not making more. Six years later, as a result of Washington’s broken promises and financial sanctions, it had seven to nine bombs’ worth [of plutonium], had resumed longer-range test launches, and felt free to test nuclear weapons.” Since then, he noted in a recent commentary, “any achievements have been temporary” because “neither side kept its commitments or sustained negotiations.”
In fact, the situation worsened during the Obama administration, which never got negotiations back on track despite Obama’s promises during his 2008 campaign that he would talk to North Korea’s leaders. Trump is dealing with the residue of these failed policies, and seemed to grasp that when he reluctantly endorsed the idea of direct talks on August 9. “They’ve been negotiating now for 25 years,” he told reporters. “Look at Clinton. He folded on the negotiations. He was weak and ineffective. You look what happened with Bush, you look what happened with Obama. Obama, he didn’t even want to talk about it. But I talk. It’s about time. Somebody has to do it.”
Trump’s facts, as usual, are off the mark—but his conclusion that talks are necessary is sound. To conduct them, however, his administration will have to deal with the same political attacks that helped sink the Agreed Framework. And then, as now, the opposition is likely to come from foreign policy hardliners who don’t believe that diplomacy has ever worked with North Korea.
Most histories of the Agreed Framework overlook a critical fact: one month after it was signed, the GOP captured Congress for the first time in four decades. “No sooner had the agreement been concluded than the Republicans took control of the House and Senate, putting it in jeopardy,” Sigal wrote in his history. Even before the ink was dry, Newt Gingrich and other party leaders, notably Senator John McCain, were attacking the framework as a sellout that would essentially bribe North Korea to follow international law on nuclear proliferation and put the United States at further risk. “We’re going back to the days of President Carter, of appeasement,” McCain told The MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour in October 1994.
Over the course of the agreement, the GOP delayed critical funding for KEDO and the fuel oil, forcing the Clinton administration to seek funds elsewhere and significantly delaying shipments—“in some cases for years,” says Chinoy. That created difficulties for the US diplomats who were directly involved with the North Koreans in implementing its terms, recalls Pierce, who spent many days in Pyongyang working with North Korean officials to monitor where the fuel oil was flowing after it reached the North. “We scraped [the funds] together, because we knew we weren’t going to get any more money from Congress,” he says. “But we had to deliver on our side.”
The North Korean government, well aware that Congress and the executive had equal power, viewed these delays as an abrogation of the agreements made in 1994. Yet despite its anger, the government of Kim Jong-il, who consolidated power shortly after his father’s death, made no attempt to reprocess the spent fuel that was stored under IAEA inspection at Yongbyon or to restart the reactor. But as a defensive measure, Pyongyang started to build medium- and long-range missiles, which had never been part of the negotiations. By 1997 it had tested two of them, causing shivers of fear at the Pentagon.
In 1998, in a desperate attempt to persuade the United States to end its hostile policy, North Korea offered to put its missile program on the table for negotiations. When Clinton demurred, Pyongyang launched a three-stage rocket called the Taepodong in a botched attempt to put a satellite into space. This led Clinton to appoint Defense Secretary Perry his envoy to Pyongyang to begin the missile negotiations that came close to ending the standoff.
A key factor in Kim Jong-il’s decision to re-enter negotiations was the progress he had made in lowering tensions with South Korea’s president, Kim Dae-jung. Since winning office in 1996, the South’s former opposition leader had championed a new “Sunshine Policy” toward the North that sought to end the country’s division through economic, political, and cultural engagement. In 2000, in an extraordinary scene that gave hope to millions of Koreans on both sides of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ), the two Kims met for the first intra-Korea summit meeting in history and declared that their peninsula would be nuclear-free.
Those developments gave impetus to the US–North Korean talks. Not long after the North-South summit, Marshal Jo Myong-rok, a high-ranking North Korean who was Kim’s second-in-command, visited Washington, DC, and met President Clinton and other top US officials at the White House. They signed a joint communiqué designed to end US–North Korean tensions once and for all, and pledged to begin talks to “formally improve” bilateral relations, including replacing the 1953 armistice that ended the Korean War with “permanent peace arrangements,” according to Sigal. Soon after, Albright flew to Pyongyang to meet with Kim.
The missile deal—including Kim’s commitment to end all production and testing—was to be capped with a visit to Pyongyang by Clinton himself. But he never made the trip, largely because his advisers kept him in Washington during the legal imbroglio that shook America over the disputed 2000 election between Democrat Al Gore and Republican George W. Bush. The agreement was never signed, although North Korea’s missile moratorium lasted until 2007. “That was the moment when everything could have gone differently,” Perry told The New York Times in a recent podcast about the 1999 talks.
Then came the neocons, and talks went out the window. “Under President Bush, the clock was turned back, the [Agreed Framework] became a Clinton mistake, something to be voided and then abolished,” wrote Park, the professor of international relations at Korea Catholic University.
Chief among the framework opponents was Donald Rumsfeld, Bush’s defense secretary. During the Clinton years, he had chaired a national commission on missile defense that identified North Korea and Iran as dangerous “rogue states” that necessitated tough policies and, of course, a robust missile-defense system. Meanwhile, at the State Department, John Bolton, also a die-hard opponent, sharply criticized the terms of the framework as Under Secretary of State for Arms Control. (Today he says that the United States can only eliminate North Korea’s nuclear program by “eliminating North Korea.”)
Early on in his administration, Bush signaled his displeasure with Clinton’s Korea diplomacy when he met at the White House with Kim Dae-jung. Kim, still basking in the glow of his 2000 summit with Kim Jong-il, hoped to convince Bush that negotiations should continue. But he was humiliated when the president told him, on live television, that he did not trust North Korea and would not endorse Kim’s “Sunshine Policy.”
A few months later, when pragmatists at State under Colin Powell decided after a review to restart talks with Pyongyang, the hard-liners—led by Bolton—seized on the uranium “discovery” from 1998 to scuttle the framework. “I wanted a decisive conclusion that the Agreed Framework was dead,” Bolton later explained.
In October 2002, Bush sent James Kelly, a deputy assistant secretary of state, to Pyongyang to deliver an ultimatum to North Korea. He had strict orders from Vice President Dick Cheney and Bolton not to negotiate in any way—a dictate he followed even after his North Korean interlocutors denied that they had a uranium program in place but offered to discuss the accusations. “Kelly had minders from both the VP’s office and John Bolton’s staff,” recalls John Merrill, the former chief of the northeast Asia division of the Bureau of Intelligence and Research at the State Department. “He had absolutely no room too explore the issue. Instead, he took what they said as an admission that they had a program and went home.”
According to this account, the North Koreans told Kelly that the country had a “right” to a uranium program but was willing to discuss the issue as part of the broader negotiations over missiles. But the hard-liners in the administration rejected the offer and decided to terminate the framework. Within months, Pyongyang had thrown out the IAEA inspectors, withdrawn from the NPT, restarted Yongbyon, and was on its way to its first bomb.
Condoleezza Rice, in her memoirs about her experience in Bush’s government, described the US refusal to talk to the North Koreans about the highly enriched uranium program, or HEU, as a huge mistake. “Because [Kelly’s] instructions were so constraining, Jim couldn’t fully explore what might have been an opening to put the [nuclear] program on the table,” she wrote. Later, when she ran for president in 2008, Hillary Clinton picked up on this theme, blasting the Bush administration for using the HEU program as an excuse to abrogate the Agreed Framework. “There is no debate that, once the [framework] was torn up, the North Koreans began to process plutonium with a vengeance because all bets were off,” she told The Washington Post.
Since then, many analysts have cast doubt on whether North Korea actually had a full-fledged uranium-based nuclear weapons program in 2002, suggesting instead that what it really had was a pilot program for uranium enrichment that “thus posed no serious and imminent threat to the security of the United States,” according to Park, the international-relations scholar. In 2007, a senior US intelligence official seemed to confirm that when he told Congress that the CIA only had “mid-confidence” that a uranium program existed. (The North eventually developed one, and displayed its facilities in 2010 to US scientists.)
Still, Pyongyang hung on: In October 2003, it offered to abandon its nuclear-weapons program if the United States would sign a non-aggression pact similar to the language worked out with Clinton and Perry. But this was a bridge too far for Bush. “We will not have a treaty,” he said. “That’s off the table.” By 2006, North Korea had processed enough plutonium to make a bomb, and it exploded its first nuclear device that same year. (For a detailed timeline of US–North Korean talks, see this chronology published by the Arms Control Association.)
Yet despite the enormous influence of the neocons under Bush, talks continued between Washington and the North, as well with China, Russia, Japan and South Korea, under the Six-Party Talks. Amazingly, in 2006, three weeks after North Korea tested its bomb—the “red line” that the United States had been trying to head off since the 1980s—Bush agreed to open direct talks with Pyongyang as part of the Six-Party process.
These talks were a result of North Korea’s declaration in 2005 that it would be willing, if certain conditions were met, to abandon its nuclear weapons and return to the NPT. In February 2007, after the stalemate and crisis that led to the 2006 test, the North suspended its nuclear testing and shut down its reactor; a few months later, it agreed to disable its plutonium facilities at Yongbyon. In return, the United States promised to ease sanctions and take North Korea off the list of countries sponsoring terrorism. But the agreement soon fell apart over the issue of verification of Pyongyang’s enrichment and plutonium activities.
As with Clinton’s 2000 agreement, Bush’s negotiations were eased by developments inside Korea, including the second North-South summit in October 2007. But soon after that meeting, South Korea’s progressive president Roh Moo-hyun was succeeded by Lee Myung-bak, a right-winger dead set against the Sunshine Policy. Backed by a new conservative government in Japan, which also rejected engagement, Lee demanded a system of written verification that Bush quickly agreed to.
North Korea, however, bitterly opposed the demand as a violation of the 2005 accords signed by the Roh government. In response, both South Korea and Japan cut off their energy assistance to the North, leaving the Six-Party Talks in limbo. (Lee’s hard-line policies, which were also adopted by his successor, Park Geun-hye, greatly heightened tensions with the North and helped bring on the current crisis, current President Moon Jae-in told me in an interview with The Nation in May.)
The Six-Party Talks, however, didn’t fall apart until the first months of the Obama administration. According to Sigal’s detailed history, President Obama and Jeff Bader, his top adviser on Asia, decided in 2009 to adopt President Lee’s proposals to use the suspension of energy aid as pressure to force North Korea to accept the verification plans they were now demanding. Lee also had the advantage of a close, friendly relationship with President Obama, which The New York Times characterized as “a presidential man-crush.”
The idea of direct talks with the North, championed during Obama’s 2008 campaign, was abandoned. Washington’s policy, according to Sigal, became “pure pressure without negotiations.” Officially, the doctrine was known as “strategic patience,” but behind it was an assumption that North Korea was headed for collapse. The Obama-Lee pressure tactics only increased tensions, leading to further North Korean nuclear and missile tests, as well as a shelling incident in 2010 that almost caused a military confrontation.
As the situation deteriorated, Obama embarked on a series of military exercises with South Korea that increased in size and tempo over the course of his administration and are now at the heart of the tension with Kim Jong-un. Still, dialogue continued sporadically, particularly through a channel of former US officials that has included Sigal.
In 2010, the North proposed through this channel to ship out its nuclear fuel rods, the key ingredient for producing weapons-grade plutonium, to a third country in exchange for a US commitment to pledge that it had “no hostile intent” toward the North. But the Obama administration “didn’t even listen,” according to Joel Wit, a former negotiator who participated in the meeting. In 2015, Pyongyang made a sweeping proposal for a peace treaty that would end the enmity; this, too, was rejected out of hand.
By the end of 2016, as David Sanger chronicled in the Times, Obama had decided on an aggressive cyber strategy that used electronic attacks to “sabotage” North Korea’s missiles and its supply chains. As Obama left the scene and Trump arrived at the White House, relations were frayed almost beyond repair.
In April of this year, following a series of missile tests, Trump turned up the heat, and tensions since then have gone through the roof. Yet, as I reported in The Nation, North Korea clings to the idea that negotiations will be possible only if the United States ends the “hostile policy” that Pyongyang thought Washington had jettisoned with the Agreed Framework 1994.
Today the Trump administration is trying to combine sanctions against Pyongyang with pressure on China to bring the North to the table. That may have worked to a certain degree: Kim Jong-un’s pullback on August 14 came hours after Beijing said it would immediately ban imports of North Korean coal, iron, and seafood. This decision followed China’s extraordinary August vote in favor of the tough sanctions imposed by the UN Security Council.
But at some point, the United States is going to have to sit down with Kim’s representatives and seek to hammer something out that will put the North on the path to denuclearization—or accept it as a nuclear power and seek to temper its program, as James Clapper, the former director of National Intelligence, and other former US officials have proposed. (Some past negotiators disagree.) Last week, CNN’s Will Ripley reported, Pyongyang told him that a US acknowledgement of its nuclear program would clear the way for diplomacy.
At the UN this week, China and Russia argued again that the best way to start those talks is a “freeze for freeze,” in which the North suspends its nuclear and missile testing in exchange for a moratorium or scaling back of the massive US-South Korean military exercises that have so inflamed the North. While this exchange has been rejected by the Trump administration (Haley called it “insulting”), a former US negotiator recently reminded a group of Korea watchers in a confidential conference call that Clinton’s suspension of the US “Team Spirit” exercises in South Korea were “critical” to getting the Agreed Framework passed. Meanwhile, a recent poll suggests that 60 percent of Americans favor a negotiated settlement with North Korea.
As in 1994, the trade-off will have to come between ending the enmity and finding the peace. Somewhere in the history of those negotiations, Tillerson and his president may find the key to resolving a conflict that dates back to 1945 and the dawn of the Cold War. But they will have to do it with the full cooperation of South Korea, as President Moon has frequently reminded Trump. “No one should be allowed to decide on a military action on the Korean Peninsula without South Korean agreement,” Moon declared in an unusually blunt statement on August 15. The purpose of sanctions and pressure, he added, “is to bring North Korea to the negotiating table, not to raise military tensions.”
Yoon Young-kwan, who worked with President Moon as South Korea’s foreign minister in the Roh Moo-hyun administration, reinforced those comments on September 5 at a Washington conference on US-South Korean relations. During these tense times, he said, “we must keep our diplomatic channels open and explore what is possible.”
He pointed to the clause in the 1994 framework on normalizing US-North Korean political and economic relations. “North Korea had high expectations of that,” he said. “We must provide them with some kind of incentive” to negotiate. As the historian Bruce Cumings reminded us a few weeks back, another war of “fire and fury,” as Trump famously threatened on August 9, is out of the question.