This past October marked the 20th anniversary of the Agreed Framework. A landmark agreement between the US and North Korea. Its aim was to “achieve peace and security on a nuclear-free Korean peninsula” and normalize North Korean-American relations. The agreement’s implementation replaced North Korea’s existing nuclear power program with light water reactors, as well as provided “formal assurances” to North Korea “against the threat or use of nuclear weapons.”
Cracks started to appear in 2002 when the US accused North Korea of breaking the terms of the agreement by restarting its uranium enrichment program. The agreement eventually collapsed in 2003 as North Korea announced its withdrawal from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). So, 20 years down the road, what lessons can the US take away from the Agreed Framework?
There are typically two common, polarized schools of thought on what we can learn from the agreement. The first is that the interpretation of the Agreed Framework as a success, despite its eventual collapse, stems from the fact that it slowed North Korea’s nuclear program, provided a near decade long period of relative stability on the Korean peninsula, and improved US-North Korea relations. The second is that the agreement was a total failure, as North Korea had no intention of giving up its nuclear weapons and was able to use nuclear brinkmanship to blackmail the US for economic assistance and security promises. Both schools of thought have merit.
It is clear that the Agreed Framework was not a flawless agreement, but it is equally clear that there is no perfect solution when it comes to tackling North Korea’s nuclear program. So, if there is no ideal solution, what are the available options?
First, however unappealing it is to Washington, accept that North Korea will never give up its nuclear weapons and that it will be a nuclear armed state. Second, do nothing. This is the Obama administration’s current strategy; they seem to have grown exhausted by failed attempts to engage Pyongyang. The administration’s ‘strategic patience’ tactic – remaining open to talks with Pyongyang but only if certain preconditions are met – has reached a stalemate and has only given North Korea more time to develop its nuclear arsenal. Finally, squeeze North Korea with sanctions in the hope that the financial losses from sanctions will force Pyongyang to fall in line.
The international community has seen only limited success with these options over the past decades. While North Korea has in the past proven itself to be a somewhat unpredictable partner for diplomatic negotiations, approaching the regime diplomatically is the best, if still flawed, approach.
While the Agreed Framework was not a perfect agreement, it did, however, enable the US negotiators to divert a crisis and make the situation manageable. The framework managed to achieve a significant slowing of North Korea’s nuclear development program, as Bob Gallucci, the chief US negotiator in the Agreed Framework, explains:
I would say, probably, without exaggeration, we’re talking about more than a hundred nuclear weapons that would have been built, had we not made the deal…makes the deal seem like a good one to me! That it collapsed, either way it served its purpose for a decade nearly. Not so bad!
So if diplomacy is, seemingly, the best way in dealing with Pyongyang, then what does the Agreed Framework teach us about next steps?
When reviewing the US-North Korean interactions in the build up to the Agreed Framework, it’s clear that the ability to understand and accept North Korea’s point of view played a crucial role in negotiations. North Korea views its nuclear weapons as a key deterrent and vital to its national security.
North Korea is a small, isolated nation short on allies, so to expect Pyongyang to unilaterally give up their nuclear weapons offers no hope of success. The importance of understanding Pyongyang’s position on its nuclear arsenal illustrates the futility of the West’s insistence on meeting established preconditions, in order to restart diplomatic talks. Rather than insisting Pyongyang act first, Washington would benefit from learning the lessons of the 1990s. The Clinton administration was able to commence the Agreed Framework negotiations by recognizing that North Korea wants to be recognized and dealt with as a sovereign, rather than a rogue, state. This recognition of Pyongyang’s perspective was fundamental in enabling the Agreed Framework to be signed.
These attempts at rapprochement with North Korea were significant. However, in recent years these initiatives have been all but abandoned. Limiting North Korea’s proliferation is the most realistic goal for the US and is the best option for securing its national security priorities.
A key lesson as to why the Agreed Framework broke down is that both Pyongyang and Washington were guilty of not following through with their obligations. Bob Gallucci admitted that the US, too, was guilty of contributing to the collapse of the deal:
There are those now who have come forward from the Clinton administration saying that the deal was basically abandoned by the United States. That’s perhaps too strong, but that there was a lack of political will to enforce the Agreed Framework, that in fact, the complaints coming from North Korea that the United States dragged its feet and reneged have some validity.
Because trust between Washington and Pyongyang is already strained, the US can ill afford to provide North Korea a reason to walk away from the negotiating table. Furthermore, as distrust between the two nations is hard to envisage being overcome in the foreseeable future, any future deal cannot be centered solely on trust. A balance of carrots and sticks is necessary to both implement a deal and prevent it from collapsing.
Dealing with North Korea will necessitate using both bilateral and multilateral approaches, which will be an important strategy for the US to employ in order to avoid a future deal collapsing. It is essential for the Obama administration to rethink its current policy towards North Korea and actively seek engagement with Pyongyang. Pyongyang has sent various signals that it is ready to cooperate with the US.
It is in the Washington’s interest to seek a similar deal to the Agreed Framework. The timing and political climate to do so is preferable and similar to that found when the framework was initially negotiated. Looming threats of more nuclear tests will only bring about more nuclear brinkmanship, which means now is the time for Washington to commence talks with Pyongyang and take the first meaningful action toward a renewed agreement.