The History of the 1994 Agreed Framework

News Abroad

Mr. Poneman is a Senior Fellow at The Forum for International Policy. He served on the National Security Council Staff for Presidents Bill Clinton and George H.W. Bush.

Note: This article was first published in 2006.

The North Korean nuclear program remained small until the mid-1980s, when a five megawatt (MW) "research reactor" -- a natural uranium-fueled, gas-graphite moderated design ideally suited to produce weapons plutonium -- entered into operation at Yongbyon. In 1985 North Korea acceded to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, forswearing nuclear weapons and committing to conclude a safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency within eighteen months. When North Korea failed to meet that deadline, without objection the IAEA extended the deadline for an additional eighteen months. North Korea missed the subsequent deadline, too.

By 1989, concerns about North Korea’s nuclear activities had deepened, as a plutonium reprocessing facility appeared at the Yongbyon nuclear site. The United States consulted with its treaty allies, South Korea and Japan, about the risk of nuclear weapons proliferation in North Korea, and Tokyo agreed to condition improved relations with Pyongyang on the latter’s restraint from engaging in plutonium reprocessing.

In September 1991 President Bush announced the unilateral withdrawal of all land- and sea-based tactical nuclear weapons worldwide. President Roh Tae Wu of South Korea then announced that no U.S. nuclear weapons existed in South Korea. The Bush initiative unleashed a fertile period in nuclear diplomacy in Korea. In December 1991, North and South Korea signed a joint declaration on the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula, an accord that proscribed both uranium enrichment and plutonium reprocessing on both sides of the 38th Parallel. In January 1992, the United States and South Korea agreed to cancel the Team Spirit joint military exercise scheduled for that year. Later that month, Under Secretary of State Arnold Kanter and senior Workers’ Party official Kim Yong Sun held what at that time was the highest-ranking meeting ever held between the U.S. and North Korean officials. Following that meeting, North Korea finally concluded its safeguards agreement with the IAEA.

Tensions on the peninsula, however, soon re-emerged. Washington had conditioned any further discussions with Pyongyang on North Korean progress in implementing IAEA safeguards and the North-South Denuclearization Declaration. Pyongyang made its initial safeguards declaration concerning its nuclear activities and materials to the IAEA in May 1992, but in the following months IAEA inspectors discovered discrepancies between that declaration and the data they gained from other sources, including their own inspection activities. Meanwhile, North-South talks on implementing the Denuclearization Declaration bogged down without agreement. The North sought a further high-level meeting with the United States, but was rebuffed. South Korean announcement of a North Korean spy ring operating in the South added an emotionally-charged element to the tensions on the peninsula. In October, the United States and South Korea decided to resume the Team Spirit exercise in 1993, further souring relations with North Korea. In December, as South Koreans went to the polls to elect their first civilian president in 30 years, and the IAEA requested access to two nuclear waste sites suspected to contain evidence of undisclosed North Korean reprocessing of plutonium beyond that admitted in its declaration to the Agency.

The stand-off with North Korea intensified in early 1993. In February, the IAEA Board of Governors passed a resolution calling on North Korea to accept “special inspections” to resolve the anomalies in the North Korean declaration. North Korea demurred. On March 12, North Korea shocked the world by announcing its withdrawal from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation, effective (as provided by the Treaty) in three months’ time.

In May, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 825, calling on North Korea to return to full compliance with international nonproliferation obligations, and urging all member states to “facilitate” a solution to the problem. Pursuant to that resolution, the United States held a first round of talks with North Korea in New York in June 1993. On June 11 – one day before Pyongyang’s withdrawal would have become effective – a joint US-NK statement announced North Korea’s agreement to “suspend” notice of its intention to withdraw from the NPT, but leaving the underlying issues of North Korea’s full compliance with its international nonproliferation commitments unresolved.

To address those issues, in July the United States and North Korea held a second round of talks in Geneva, but failed to reach agreement. North Korea proposed to abandon its gas-graphite nuclear program – ideally suited to nuclear weapons production – in exchange for assistance in building more proliferation-resistant light-water reactors. To keep pressure on North Korea, the United States conditioned a third round of US-North Korean talks on Pyongyang’s engagement with South Korea and with the IAEA.

Just before the Geneva talks, President Clinton traveled to Seoul. In a July 10 speech to the National Assembly there, the President reaffirmed the U.S. security commitment to South Korea, calling the continued U.S. military presence “the bedrock of America’s security role in the Asian Pacific.” In the months that followed, the United States quietly enhanced its military assets in South Korea, reviewed its war plans for a conflict in Korea, engaged in military consultations with Japan, and continued a robust program of joint military exercises with South Korea.

By autumn of 1993, Pyongyang’s continued failure to meet the conditions for a third round of talks brought it close to breaking “the continuity of safeguards”, a standard by which the IAEA could assure the international community that no additional plutonium was being separated in North Korea. Facing a deteriorating situation, in November the United States and South Korea agreed to propose a “broad and thorough” approach to the problem, in which the nuclear issue would be resolved in the context of the overall political, military, diplomatic, and commercial relations between North Korea and the international community.

The United States and North Korea agreed that on a single day in March 1994--dubbed “Super Tuesday” – four events would occur: the IAEA would inspect the Yongbyon nuclear facilities, the North and South would meet to arrange the exchange envoys, South Korea would announce the suspension of the 1994 Team Spirit exercise, and Washington and Pyongyang would announced the scheduling of a third round of bilateral talks.

As “Super Tuesday” approached, however, the agreement fell apart over continued disagreements on the sequencing of the North-South talks, as well as by North Korea’s refusal to allow the IAEA to carry out its full range of inspection activities at Yongbyon. The coup de grace came on March 19 when a North Korean official threatened to engulf Seoul in a “sea of fire”. The United States, which had been quietly enhancing its military presence in Korea for months, responded by completing long-planned Patriot missile deployments to South Korea, and intensifying diplomatic efforts – including through China – to apply pressure on Pyongyang to return to full compliance with its nonproliferation obligations.

Facing a unified international community (reflected in UN resolutions and private communications), unable to drive a wedge between the United States and its regional allies, losing the support of its traditional sponsors in Moscow and Beijing, by April 1994 North Korea had nowhere left to turn. Choosing defiance over compliance, Pyongyang refused further negotiations, quickly moving to cross one of the red lines the Americans had drawn as a condition for continued U.S.-North Korean dialogue: the removal of the 8,000 spent fuel rods from the 5 MW reactor at Yongbyon without adequate international controls to assure the IAEA of the preservation of historical information in the rods that could help resolve the anomalies in North Korea’s May 1993 declaration to the IAEA.

In June of 1994, the IAEA announced it could no longer confirm the continuity of safeguards in North Korea. The United States responded by breaking off dialogue with North Korea and beginning consultations at the UN on a Security Council resolution imposing sanctions against North Korea. At the same time, the Pentagon prepared a series of options for the President to augment U.S. forces in Korea by up to 50,000 troops or more, reinforced by additional deployments of air and sea power to the region, in order to support the enforcement of sanctions and to deter North Korea from taking any militarily hostile action across the demilitarized zone.

Meanwhile, former President Jimmy Carter traveled to Pyongyang – privately but with the acquiescence of the White House – to attempt to defuse the crisis. Emerging from talks with North Korea’s aging leader, Kim Il Sung, Carter announced that North Korea was willing to “freeze” the program and allow IAEA inspectors to remain at Yongbyon. He also disclosed that Kim Il Sung was willing to hold a summit meeting with South Korean President Kim Young Sam.

The White House, unwilling to reward North Korea merely for halting a violation of an existing commitment, used diplomatic channels to expand U.S. demands, specifically by redefining a nuclear “freeze” in North Korea to include the continued shutdown of the five-megawatt reactor that had produced North Korea’s plutonium. North Korea accepted this U.S. definition by committing to the expanded freeze. The logjam broken, U.S. negotiators returned to Geneva in July to resume discussions with the North Koreans. After one day of meetings, the stunning news of Kim Il Sung’s death abruptly terminated the discussions, and each delegation returned to its home capital.

In August 1994, the United States resumed discussions with North Korea, and the outlines of a deal quickly emerged. Subsequent negotiations concluded on October 21, 1994, with the signing by Ambassador Robert Gallucci and Vice Foreign Minister Kang Sok Ju of the Agreed Framework. Under the Agreed Framework, North Korea affirmed its NPT member status, committed to allow implementation of its IAEA safeguards agreement, and froze the existing North Korean nuclear program under IAEA supervision. Under the freeze, North Korea refrained from restarting the five megawatt reactor and halted construction on two larger (50MW and 200MW) reactors, which together could have produced 150 kilograms of plutonium per year, enough for dozens of nuclear weapons. North Korea accepted U.S. assistance in recanning the 8,000 spent fuel rods in the storage facility at Yongbyon. The reactor, spent fuel storage, and reprocessing facilities at Yongbyon were sealed and subjected to continuous on-site monitoring by IAEA inspectors.

The Agreed Framework also provided for the eventual dismantlement of the existing North Korean nuclear program and export of spent nuclear fuel already in North Korea.

The Agreed Framework provided that in return for the freezing and dismantling of its nuclear program, North Korea would receive assistance from the international community in the form of two 1,000 MW light water reactors and, in the interim, 500,000 tons of heavy fuel oil per year as an offset to the energy that would have been generated by the North Korean nuclear reactors that were frozen under the agreement. North Korea agreed to accept whatever inspections or other steps deemed necessary by the IAEA to return to full compliance with its IAEA obligations before Pyongyang received any significant nuclear components for the light-water reactor project.

The United States, South Korea, and Japan established the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization (KEDO) to implement the Agreed Framework. The KEDO charter members agreed that South Korea would provide the lion’s share of the $4 billion estimated cost of the light-water reactor project, Japan would provide a significant share of the balance, and the United States would bear primary responsibility and pay for arranging the heavy fuel oil shipments (costing $50 million per year, on average, depending on oil prices). The European Union subsequently joined KEDO and provided some financial support for the Agreed Framework, as did a number of other governments. Early on, when questions were raised about the possible diversion of heavy fuel oil from its intended use, the United States insisted on the installation of monitoring devices in North Korea to safeguard against diversion.

In the years that followed the negotiation of the Agreed Framework, KEDO and North Korea signed a light-water reactor supply agreement (December 1995), under which site preparation work proceeded at Kumho in North Korea. At times implementation of the Agreed Framework project was delayed by budgetary and other difficulties and, in recent years, Pyongyang’s continued failure to come into full compliance with its IAEA safeguard obligations appeared to threaten the project. (Recall that the Agreed Framework required that such compliance be fulfilled prior to the delivery of significant nuclear components to the LWR project.)

The Agreed Framework did not end tensions on the Peninsula. In 1996, interception of a North Korean submarine infiltrating the waters off South Korea delayed the ground-breaking at the Kumho light-water reactor site. In 1998, continued concerns about North Korean proliferation-related activities – including a ballistic missile firing over Japan and suspicions that an underground facility discovered in the North might be used for nuclear purposes – also threatened to derail the Agreed Framework. U.S. diplomatic efforts to constrain North Korean proliferation activities – including a policy review led by Secretary of Defense Bill Perry and visit to North Korea by Secretary of State Madeleine Albright – continued through the year 2000.

In 2001, the incoming Bush Administration undertook a review of U.S. policy toward Korea, which led to a decision to present a “bold initiative” to the North, which would reach beyond the nuclear issue to address ballistic missile and conventional military threats as well as such U.S. concerns as human rights in North Korea. Over the summer of 2002, however, evidence accumulated concerning a clandestine uranium enrichment program. In October, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia James Kelly challenged Pyongyang on the basis of that evidence. To the surprise of many, the North conceded the existence the enrichment program, which violated North Korea’s international nonproliferation commitments. KEDO responded by suspending the shipment of heavy-fuel oil provided for under the Agreed Framework. Pyongyang, in turn, abandoned a number of constraints that had been implemented under the Agreed Framework – expelling International Atomic Energy Agency inspectors, withdrawing from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, unsealing the Yongbyon nuclear facilities, turning off the surveillance cameras and restarting the five-megawatt reactor there – drastically reducing the controls over and transparency into its nuclear program, while increasing its dangers. The next major step North Korea could take on the nuclear side would be to restart its reprocessing facility, which could separate five to six bombs’ worth of plutonium from the 8,000 spent fuel rods over the next several months. With intensifying rhetoric and a series of escalating steps – including renewed missile testing by North Korea and the interception of a U.S. surveillance aircraft over international waters bordering Korea – the future course of events in the Korean peninsula may be as dangerous as they are uncertain.

Copyright © 2006 Reprinted with the permission of The Forum For International Policy, which reserves all rights to this article.

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