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Did the United States Break the Agreed Framework?

"My predecessor, in a good-faith effort, entered into a framework agreement. The United States honored its side of the agreement; North Korea didn't. While we felt the agreement was in force, North Korea was enriching uranium," President Bush told reporters on March 6. Other advisers are less charitable: they say Bill Clinton yielded to blackmail. They are misreading the past and misleading the president.

When you're in a dark alley and a man menaces you with a baseball bat and tells you to hand over your wallet, that's blackmail. It's not blackmail when he hands you the bat and says, let's play ball.

That's what North Korea did in the October 1994 Agreed Framework, when it agreed to freeze and eventually dismantle its nuclear weapons program -- a program that U.S. intelligence says by now could have been generating 30 bombs' worth of plutonium a year.

In return the United States pledged to provide North Korea with two new light-water reactors for generating electricity "by a target date of 2003," to supply 500,000 tons of heavy fuel oil in the interim and, above all, to "move toward full normalization of political and economic relations" -- in other words, to end enmity and economic sanctions.

Washington got what it most wanted up front, but it did not live up to its end of the bargain.

Reactor construction was slow to get under way. Anticipating congressional refusal to pay, the administration went begging, tin cup in hand, to allies South Korea and Japan to raise money for the first reactor. It took time to set up an international consortium -- the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization, or KEDO -- to deliver the reactors and heavy fuel oil, and more time to lobby the National Assembly in South Korea and the Diet in Japan to appropriate the funds. Ground-clearing did not begin until fall 1996. Even though Washington pledged to complete the first reactor by "a target date of 2003," concrete for the foundation was not poured until August 2001. Construction is still more than two years from completion.

The United States did not spend a cent of its own on the reactor, but it was supposed to pay for interim supplies of heavy fuel oil for the North. Because Congress was reluctant to appropriate the funds and the administration was loath to push for it, Washington did not always deliver heavy fuel oil on schedule.

The United States undertook little relaxation of economic sanctions until June 2000, when it finally ended sanctions under the Trading with the Enemy Act, dating back to the Korean War. Sanctions under U.S. anti-terrorism statutes have yet to be relaxed despite the fact that North Korea has committed no known act of international terrorism since 1987. More appropriately, proliferation-related sanctions also remain in force.

Above all, the Clinton administration did not live up to the pledge made in Article II to end enmity. "The internal logic of the agreement was that there had to be progress in terms of improved relations," says Charles Kartman, deputy assistant secretary of state in the 1995-97 period. As Ambassador Stephen Bosworth, the first executive director of KEDO told the Wall Street Journal on March 5, "There are reasons why the North Koreans might think we weren't totally sincere."

When Washington was slow to fulfill the terms of the accord, Pyongyang threatened to break it in 1997. Its effort to acquire technology to enrich uranium began soon thereafter.

One would have expected the United States to be punctilious about observing the accord, given the importance that it attached to ending North Korea's nuclear arming. Yet that did not happen. Why?

Domestic politics. When Republicans won control of Congress in elections just days after the October 1994 accord was signed, they denounced it as appeasement. Press coverage and commentary was overwhelmingly skeptical, if not openly hostile. Shying away from taking on Congress, the Clinton administration back-pedaled on implementation. "Congressional and press skeptics and critics did lead us to take the minimum interpretation of sanctions lifting," Ambassador Robert Gallucci told the Washington Times in late 1999. Gallucci, who negotiated the accord, goes on, "What happened after the Republicans took control of Congress is that it was harder than before to get congressional support for funding KEDO and its activities." Deanna Okun, an aide to Frank Murkowski, who chaired a key Senate subcommittee, concurs. "Senator Murkowski was critical of the Agreed Framework, which left open the possibility there could be a significant economic and political opening." But Clinton administration officials reassured him, "'We are not opening the candy store,'" recalled Okun. "They were taking very small steps, and it appeased Murkowski."

Alliance politics also impeded the United States from living up to the nuclear deal. In 1995-97 Seoul was a reluctant partner. According to Joel Wit, who was on the U.S. negotiating team, "During the closing stages of negotiations which led to the Agreed Framework and discussions during 1995 that led to the signing of the reactor supply contract, South Korean President Kim Young Sam repeatedly urged the United States to bide its time since North Korea surely would collapse." Kim was not alone.

Within the U.S. government, some officials -- not the negotiators -- preferred to regard implementation by the light of hope rather than deal with North Korea as it is. They told reporters and members of Congress not to worry about having to abide by the deal because the North would collapse before the United States would have to carry it out.

President Kim Young Sam also encouraged congressional opponents of the deal to condition implementation on North-South talks -- talks that he himself was reluctant to enter into. In 1995-96 the administration found itself in the odd position of pressuring Pyongyang to engage in North-South talks while Seoul was doing what it could to avoid them. North Korea wanted three-party talks with the United States and South Korea, intended to move from armistice to peace.

That made sense since all three countries have forces on the ground in Korea, but South Korea insisted on two-party talks. When Washington proposed bringing in China in order to break the deadlock, Kim Young Sam balked. He came around to accepting four-party talks only after President Clinton held up a planned visit to Seoul. In a perverse way, the preoccupation with four-party talks pushed aside other concerns. "This proposal," writes Joel Wit, "became the overwhelming focus of U.S. policy to the detriment of implementation of the Agreed Framework and particularly efforts to stem North Korea's missile program." Even worse, this proposal sowed confusion in Pyongyang "confusion that resulted in much wheel-spinning and delay."

Seoul also managed to impede talks between Washington and Pyongyang. In the fall of 1996, for instance, a North Korean submarine ran aground off South Korea while apparently dropping off spies on a routine reconnaissance mission. Yet South Korea accused North Korea of mounting a "commando raid" as a prelude to all-out war and exploited the incident to hold up ground-breaking for the reactor. Seoul prevailed on Washington to postpone talks with Pyongyang on curbing its ballistic missile programs.

Congressional politics made bureaucratic politics treacherous. Given the hostile climate on Capitol Hill, executive branch officials did not view involvement in North Korea policy as a path to career advancement. Within the executive branch a deputy assistant secretary of state was left in charge of defending the Agreed Framework before Congress and trying to carry it out -- too low a level for so weighty a responsibility. This did not change until 1999 when former secretary of defense William Perry came out of retirement, and in a highly unusual arrangement, took over North Korea policy-making.

Perry, with considerable help from South Korea's president Kim Dae Jung, managed to put the United States back on the road to reconciliation with North Korea. Kim's policy of engagement led to the first ever summit meeting between the two Koreas at which the South and North pledged to reconcile, an irreversible step toward ending a half century of internecine conflict.

As soon as the summit was over, the Clinton administration carried out its promise to end sanctions under the Trading with the Enemy Act. Pyongyang also wanted Washington to end sanctions under U.S. anti-terrorism laws. Instead, in a joint statement issued on October 6, the North renounced terrorism and both sides "underscored their commitment to support the international legal regime combating international terrorism and to cooperate with each other in taking effective measures to fight terrorism" -- specifically, "to exchange information regarding international terrorism."

These steps prompted Kim Jong Il to send his second in command, Vice Marshal Jo Myong Rok, to Washington on October 9, 2000. A joint communique issued on October 12 read, "neither government would have hostile intent toward the other." In plain English, we are not enemies.

Instead of reaffirming the declaration of no "hostile intent," President Bush repudiated it in 2002 by naming North Korea to the so-called "axis of evil," announcing a new doctrine of waging preventive war -- without allies, without U.N. sanction, in violation of international law -- and designating North Korea as a potential target. The North in turn began acquiring an operational capability to enrich uranium.

Although it was aware of North Korea's ongoing nuclear and missile activities from the start, the administration did not resume negotiations. It has yet to do so even though North Korea says it is willing to refreeze the plutonium program that it has unfrozen and to negotiate verifiable elimination of its uranium enrichment program. It has also offered to discuss its chemical and biological programs.

The failure, in short, was systemic and bipartisan: Congress and the executive branch -- under President Clinton and President Bush -- bear responsibility for the U.S. unwillingness to make promises and keep them. Denying the past will only keep us from dealing effectively with the present.

Elsewhere on the Web

Congressional Research Service report on the crisis over North Korea (2003).