At the end of the Cold War, President George H.W. Bush authorized the withdrawal of most US tactical nuclear weapons deployed abroad, including approximately 100 nuclear weapons based in South Korea (September 1991). Shortly after, the two Koreas signed the South-North Joint Declaration on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, which opened a path for dialogue between the United States and North Korea. Though the negotiation record is uneven, diplomacy, combined with pressure and incentives, has succeeded at key times to curb the North’s nuclear and missile capabilities.
The Agreed Framework (1994-2003)
In 1993, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) requested special inspections of suspected North Korean nuclear facilities. In response, North Korea rejected the IAEA, declared its withdrawal from the nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and announced its intention to produce weapons-grade plutonium. The United States was prepared to conduct surgical strikes on North Korea’s nuclear facilities, but the risks of precipitating a second Korean War compelled the Clinton Administration to find a diplomatic solution.
In April 1994, former President Jimmy Carter visited North Korean leader Kim Il Sung to broker dialogue between the two countries. Carter’s efforts paved the way for sustained talks that, despite Kim Il Sung’s untimely death, culminated with the Agreed Framework in October 1994. North Korea agreed to freeze and eventually dismantle its graphite-moderated reactors in exchange for two proliferation-resistant light-water reactors and fuel. For the next eight years, the agreement successfully froze North Korea’s plutonium production, during which time the North could have produced enough plutonium for more than 100 nuclear warheads.
Implementation of the Agreed Framework was subject to difficulties on both sides. Soon after the Clinton Administration brokered the deal, Republicans gained control of the US Congress, resulting in “a lack of political will,” according to chief US negotiator Robert Gallucci, and contributed to significant delays in the delivery of US obligations. In 1998, Congressional opposition peaked amid concerns that the North was hiding an underground nuclear facility at Kumchang-ri. The Administration, seeking to salvage the agreement, negotiated a new deal that permitted the United States multiple inspections of the suspected site, where no evidence of nuclear activity was found.
In 2001, the newly installed Bush Administration received intelligence on a secret uranium enrichment program in North Korea. As then-Undersecretary of State for Arms Control John Bolton stated, “This was the hammer I had been looking for to shatter the Agreed Framework.” After a bilateral meeting on the matter, the United States alleged that a North Korean official confirmed the existence of such a program. The admission, which North Korea denied, led to back-and-forth accusations that each side was in violation of the Agreed Framework. By 2002, the agreement had largely fallen apart.
The Perry Process (1999-2000)
In 1998, North Korea made progress in its missile program that raised new concerns for the United States and countries in the region. After North Korea’s launch of a long-range ballistic missile over Japan, the Clinton Administration tasked a small team of inside and outside government experts with a North Korea Policy Review that would ultimately address the goals outlined in the Agreed Framework.
Former Secretary of Defense William Perry collaborated with the governments of North Korea, South Korea, China, and Japan in what would become known as the “Perry Process.” Several rounds of negotiations culminated in 1999 with a report that presented recommendations for the United States to pursue a verifiable suspension and eventual dismantlement of the North’s nuclear and long-range missile activities. In turn, the policy review team found that the United States must take steps to address the North’s security concerns and establish normal relations.
North Korea responded positively by pledging in September 1999 to freeze its missile testing for the duration of talks. In October 2000, North Korea’s senior military advisor visited Washington to discuss the details of Perry’s proposal with President Clinton, resulting in the US-DPRK Joint Communiqué that would set the tone for future negotiations. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright reciprocated the North’s visit by traveling to Pyongyang for a meeting with Kim Jong Il later that month.
However, momentum for the proposal stalled in the following month with the presidential election of George W. Bush. Then-Secretary of State Colin Powell, who stated that North Korea policy would continue where President Clinton left off, retracted his remarks following President Bush’s decision to cancel all negotiations with North Korea for the next two years.
The Six Party Talks (2003-2008)
In 2003, the Bush Administration resumed negotiations with North Korea following intelligence reports of a secret uranium enrichment program. The United States joined China, Russia, Japan, South Korea, and North Korea in a process called the Six Party Talks.
By September 2005, the Six Parties reached a Joint Statement that pledged the North to abandon “all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs.” Negotiations on how to implement the Joint Statement amounted to a second-phase agreement in October 2007, committing the North to “a complete and correct declaration of all its nuclear programs” in exchange for energy aid, sanctions relief, and the removal of North Korea from the US State Sponsor of Terrorism list.
Negotiations were hamstrung in each phase. In September 2005, the US Treasury froze North Korean assets in a Macau-based bank, Banco Delta Asia. According to chief US negotiator to the Six Parties Ambassador Christopher Hill, the timing of the incident “sidetrack[ed] the negotiations entirely.” It was not until the United States lifted the freeze in 2007 that the Six Parties were able to move forward, readmit IAEA inspectors into North Korea, and disable the Yongbyon nuclear reactor. However, disputes over the October 2007 agreement terms, which did not include a provision on verification, stalled efforts to move into the final phase of dismantling North Korea’s nuclear weapons program.
The Leap Day Agreement (2011-2012)
In July 2011, the Obama Administration attempted to restart denuclearization talks with North Korea. After a brief hiccup in negotiations following the death of Kim Jong Il, the United States and North Korea announced a “Leap Day” deal in February 2012. North Korea agreed to a moratorium on its long-range missile and nuclear tests in exchange for 240,000 metric tons of food aid.
The United States soon scrapped the deal over a dispute regarding North Korea’s right to conduct a satellite launch. Despite the US view that a space launch would violate the Leap Day agreement, North Korea proceeded to conduct a rocket launch under the new leadership of Kim Jong Un. These discrepancies are difficult to clarify as the Leap Day deal has not been made public.
In the past, negotiations with North Korea have provided unprecedented access into the country, clarified intentions between aggrieved parties, and laid the groundwork for tangible steps toward peace on the Korean Peninsula. Sanctions pressure, isolation campaigns, and military buildup alone have failed to achieve similar success. As the negotiation record shows, sustained dialogue between the United States and North Korea can yield positive results.