Nuclear Diplomacy with North Korea: The Real Story

 In North Korea, Nuclear Weapons

This article was originally published on

By Martin Hellman

The media tells us that nuclear diplomacy with North Korea is a waste of time, as do most high officials from every recent US administration. But easily verifiable facts show otherwise. The most important data point: North Korea did not do its first nuclear test until four years after Pres. Bush tore up our nuclear agreement with the North, known as the 1994 Agreed Framework.

From 1994 until Pres. Bush abrogated the agreement in 2002 North Korea was unable to access its plutonium stockpile. Once the AF was no longer in place, it started extracting plutonium and did its first nuclear test in 2006.

The United States cancelled the agreement over evidence that North Korea was doing uranium enrichment, which we said was a serious violation. However, neither the word uranium nor the word enrichment, much less the two together, appears anywhere in the Agreed Framework. Uranium enrichment was a violation of the spirit of the agreement, but not a technical violation — a fact attested to by Lim Dong Won, who served as South Korea’s Presidential Envoy to North Korea.

The North Korea section of the book my wife and I recently completed can be read in five to ten minutes and discusses the Agreed Framework in more depth. (Click here to download a free PDF, and go to page 192.) Especially if you check out the endnotes to verify what is said there, you will see why the North Koreans feel even more cheated than we do.

Our tearing up the Agreed Framework played a major role in North Korea becoming the nuclear-armed menace it is today. That history lesson is very applicable to current calls to tear up our nuclear deal with Iran. Why do we think this time would be different?

If you like seeing original source documents, read the actual Agreed Framework — it’s short so that will take just a few minutes. I started to do that recently, but ran into a problem as I compared different online versions. The one currently on the State Department’s website contains a minor typo: at one point it says “will cooperated” when it should say “will cooperate.” More serious errors occurred in some other versions that I found on other websites. Fortunately, Ms. Jooeun Kim, currently a doctoral candidate at Georgetown University and until recently a visiting MacArthur Fellow at Stanford’s Center for International Security and Cooperation, found an original, signed copy of the document in the Hoover Institution’s archives and sent it to me. I have also created a searchable online version that I checked for accuracy. (If anyone finds an error I missed, please email me at martydevoe followed by the AT symbol, then gmail DOTCOM.)

It’s high time that we started basing our foreign policy on reality, rather than wishful thinking. As former Secretary of Defense William J. Perry said in an excellent, recent talk: “We have to deal with North Korea as it is and not as we wish it to be. We have violated that catch phrase for the last few decades with terrible consequences.”

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