Lessons Learned After 25 Years of Failed Negotiations

By Joseph DeTrani

Ambassador Joseph DeTrani is former Special envoy for Six Party Talks with North Korea and the U.S. Representative to the Korea Energy Development Organization (KEDO), as well as former CIA director of East Asia Operations. He also served as the Associate Director of National Intelligence and Mission Manager for North Korea and the Director of the National Counter Proliferation Center, while also serving as a Special Adviser to the Director of National Intelligence.  He currently serves on the Board of Managers at Sandia National Laboratories.  The views expressed represent those of the author.

Twenty-five years of failed negotiations with North Korea.  Since 1993, our efforts to halt North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons have failed. What have we learned from this experience?

The 1994 Agreed Framework froze North Korea’s plutonium program, but it did not halt North Korea’s desire for nuclear weapons. Thus, while the U.S., working with Japan and South Korea, was building two civilian light-water reactors in North Korea, and providing heavy crude oil in the interim, until the reactors were operational, North Korea was pursuing a clandestine highly enriched uranium (HEU) program for nuclear weapons.

We became complacent once we had the 1994 Agreed Framework. We assumed that with the new leadership in North Korea, with Kim Jong-il replacing the deceased Kim Il-sung, and with food scarcity and significant starvation, and reports of dissension in the ranks of the military, that there would be regime change from within. We were wrong.

The Agreed Framework came to an abrupt halt in 2002, due to the HEU program, and the U.S. decision to halt heavy crude oil shipments to North Korea and suspend construction of the two light-water reactors, which motivated North Korea to pull out of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT). In August 2003, with the assistance of China, the Six-Party process commenced, with China serving as the Chair, and the U.S., South Korea, Japan and Russia participating. After many plenary sessions and task force meetings, in September 2005 the six countries signed a Joint Statement, committing North Korea to complete and verifiable denuclearization, in return for security assurances, economic development assistance and the provision of light-water reactors when North Korea returned to the NPT as a non-nuclear weapon state.

The Joint Statement initially wasn’t implemented, however, because of the freezing of $24 million of North Korean money in a Macao bank, Banco Delta Asia. After a number of months, during which international financial institutions refused to deal with North Korean banks, the U.S. informed the Macao bank that it could release the $24 million to North Korea. The North Koreans insisted the money be returned to them through a U.S. financial institution to demonstrate to international financial institutions that it was fine to deal with North Korean banks. Understandably, no U.S. bank wanted to deal with North Korea, so the money was returned to North Korea via the Federal Reserve Bank of New York. This pleased Pyongyang and North Korea then started to implement the Joint Statement.

The implementation of the Joint Statement ended in late 2008, when North Korea refused to sign a monitoring and verification protocol that would permit monitors to inspect suspect nuclear sites. Since then, there have been no formal talks with North Korea.

During the five years since Kim Jong-un replaced his father in December 2011, North Korea has had over 70 missile launches, the most recent on May 14 of an intermediate-range ballistic missile. It has had two nuclear tests and is preparing for its sixth. North Korea’s nuclear weapons program has progressed exponentially, with bigger nuclear tests and the likelihood that North Korea is capable of miniaturizing its arsenal of nuclear weapons. Eventually, North Korea will test-launch an intercontinental ballistic missile (capable of reaching the U.S., potentially with a nuclear warhead.

In addition to its nuclear and missile programs, North Korea has upgraded its asymmetrical warfare capabilities, as shown by their cyber penetration of Sony Pictures in 2014 and the use of VX nerve agent to assassinate Kim Jong-nam, the brother of Kim Jong-un in February.

North Korea has made it abundantly clear that it wants to be recognized and accepted as a nuclear weapons state. It has been told this would never happen. North Korea with nuclear weapons will contribute to a nuclear arms race in East Asia, with countries like South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and others demanding that they, too, have nuclear weapons, regardless of any extended nuclear deterrence commitment from the United States. It could also result in nuclear weapons or devices or fissile material getting into the hands of rogue states and other parties, such as terrorists. There’s also the possibility of a nuclear weapon being used accidentally. Meanwhile, we should never forget North Korea’s contribution to constructing a nuclear reactor in Al Kibar, Syria, that, fortunately, the Israelis destroyed in 2007.

So, what does this all mean? What have we learned and will it help us draft a meaningful strategy for dealing with North Korea? These are some of my takeaways:

  1.  Stay engaged. Don’t assume the domestic situation in North Korea will lead to regime change. Accept the fact that Kim Jong-un has consolidated power and we will have to deal with him.
  2. It’s easy to walk away from negotiations, as we did in October-November 2002, due to North Korea’s HEU program. However, to re-engage is difficult, so stay at the table and work those difficult and seemingly intractable issues.
  3. Being too eager for an agreement could reinforce North Korea’s belief that it will prevail and eventually the U.S. will accept it as a nuclear weapons state. Using the New York Federal Reserve Bank to facilitate the return of the $24 million at BDA to North Korea could have been interpreted by Pyongyang as proof that the U.S. wanted an agreement badly.
  4. Trust but verify. We were correct in demanding that North Korea permit, in writing, verification monitors to visit suspect sites in North Korea.
  5. We should not be patient with a North Korea building greater nuclear and missile capabilities. Work hard and, with our allies and partners, implement a strategy for resolving the nuclear issue with North Korea. 

U.S. President Donald Trump’s strategy of “all options are on the table” is timely and necessary. It’s now possible that working closely with our allies, in South Korea and Japan, and with China more aggressively pursuing North Korea, we will get North Korea to halt its nuclear and missile programs and return to denuclearization talks.

The author was the former Special Envoy for negotiations with North Korea.  The views are the author’s and not any government agency or department.