Best Of: Fault on Both Sides: 25 Years of North Korea Negotiations

Photo: Jacklin Nguyen/The Cipher Brief

North Korea has threatened to pull out of planned talks between leaders Kim Jong Un and President Donald Trump, citing opposition to U.S. demands for unilateral denuclearization and comments made by national security advisor John Bolton that referenced the “Libyan model” for denuclearization.

President Trump has clarified that the U.S. does not seek to remove Kim from power, saying “he would be running his country…his country would be very rich,” while also warning that should Kim choose not to make a deal, the U.S. is prepared to remove him from power.

Scheduled for June 12, the summit between Trump and Kim is—for the moment—still on the calendar. As the U.S. prepares for this high-stakes diplomatic moment, we revisit analysis written by Mike Chinoy, a former CNN Senior Asia Correspondent who has visited North Korea 17 times, looking back at U.S.-North Korean negotiations over the past two and a half decades.

With the prospect of Donald Trump holding a summit with Kim Jong Un in the near future, it’s worth looking back at the history of American negotiations with North Korea over the past 25 years.

The conventional wisdom says that whenever any agreement has been reached, North Korea has cheated. But the reality is more complex. Not all negotiations have failed — and the collapse of agreements during that time has been as much the responsibility of Washington as of Pyongyang.

Start with the Agreed Framework of October 1994. North Korea agreed to freeze its reactor at Yongbyon. In return, the Clinton administration promised heavy fuel oil, support for the construction of proliferation-resistant light-water reactors, and a gradual overall improvement in relations.

The North Koreans did indeed freeze Yongbyon for eight years, a time when they could otherwise have produced enough weapons-grade plutonium for dozens of bombs. Soon after the deal was signed, however, the Republicans, deeply skeptical both of the Framework and of President Bill Clinton, took control of Congress. In the following years, they repeatedly blocked funding for key elements of the deal, making it difficult for Washington to provide what it had promised.

By the late 1990s, the North Koreans were becoming increasingly skeptical. It was at this time that Pyongyang began to acquire the key R&D components for building a uranium bomb from Pakistan. Much of the discussion today portrays this development as bald-faced North Korean cheating. Indeed, Pyongyang may have been planning to take this step anyway.

The timing, however, suggests that frustration with the U.S., and then-Korean leader Kim Jong Il’s concern that he had shut down his plutonium program while the U.S. was not fulfilling its own commitments, may well have also played a role.

Nonetheless, in the fall of 2000, Kim sent his top general to Washington to meet Bill Clinton and invite him to Pyongyang, with a promise that a summit could resolve all outstanding issues. This led to Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s historic trip there just before the presidential election.

However, American insistence on lower-level officials meeting first to hammer out details on a missile deal – when the reality was that in the North Korean system, only the “Dear Leader” could make a binding decision — slowed diplomatic progress. Then the victory of George W. Bush after the contested 2000 presidential election made it impossible for Clinton to accept Kim’s invitation, despite his strong desire to do so.

As soon as Bush took office, U.S. policy hardened considerably, symbolized by Bush’s famous “Axis of Evil” speech in 2002, in which North was lumped together with Iran and Iraq.

That summer, U.S. intelligence got wind of the secret North Korean effort to acquire a uranium capability. In October 2002, Assistant Secretary of State James Kelly was sent to Pyongyang to confront the North Koreans.

The conventional version of his visit is that when challenged, the North Koreans admitted the uranium program. However, because of ambiguities in the translation, questions remain about just what they said, and whether they may have also proposed talks to address the issue. Despite repeated requests from many quarters to release it, Kelly’s report of his conversation remains classified.

In any case, by the start of 2003, the Bush administration – prodded by hardliners like then-Ambassador to the UN John Bolton and Vice President Dick Cheney, who had always opposed negotiation with Pyongyang— had used the alleged North Korean admission to walk away from the Agreed Framework.

Pyongyang then restarted its Yongbyon reactor. As tensions increased, an anxious China managed to convince the U.S. to join Six-Party Talks, along with North Korea, South Korea, Japan and Russia. On Sept. 19, 2005, an agreement was finally reached to roll back the North’s nuclear program in return for a U.S. pledge of improved relations.

The very next day, however, administration hardliners– over the objections of the U.S. negotiating team at the talks – announced sweeping sanctions on the Banco Delta Asia, a bank in Macau where North Korea held dozens of accounts.

The North, which understandably interpreted the sanctions as a repudiation of the commitment to better ties the U.S. had just signed, walked out of the six-party process, and made clear it would not return until the Banco Delta Asia sanctions were lifted.

In the first half of 2006, the U.S. rebuffed Pyongyang’s repeated proposals to negotiate the issue. That set the stage for the North’s first nuclear test, in Oct. 2006. A test may well have always been in the cards, but the timing suggests that, like the move to acquire the uranium R&D capability the late 1990s, U.S. behavior also played a role. It certainly fit with Pyongyang’s “tit for tat” pattern of engaging when Washington was prepared to talk and increasing the pressure when the U.S. tried to get tough.

After the test, with neither China nor South Korea enthusiastic about more sanctions, U.S. envoy Christopher Hill disobeyed instructions from his boss, Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice and held a bilateral meeting in Beijing with his North Korean counterpart during which he promised to resolve the bank issue. This led the North to return to the six-party talks, and in 2007, another agreement to curb Pyongyang’s nuclear program was reached.

This understanding, however, fell apart in mid- 2008, partly due to U.S. insistence on verification measures so intrusive one administration official described them as a “national proctologic examination,” complicated by the fact that, at that very moment, Kim Jong Il apparently suffered a stroke. This deprived the North of its sole authoritative decision-make at a crucial time.

When the Obama administration took office, it introduced a policy of “strategic patience” – in effect maintaining the pressure while showing little interest in negotiations – despite Obama’s campaign pledge to stretch out his hand to old adversaries.

This led to an escalating cycle of North Korean missile tests, U.S.-led condemnation at the UN, and more tough North Korean responses. The one agreement that was reached, the so-called “Leap Day Deal” of Feb. 29, 2012, was undermined by the sudden death of Kim Jong Il and a serious miscalculation by a newly empowered North Korean successor Kim Jong Un that he could stage a fresh missile test and not have Washington walk away from the accord. But that was the extent of serious diplomatic engagement during the Obama years.

This unhappy history makes clear that pressure on North Korea without a willingness to engage diplomatically has usually produced the opposite of the desired result.

Moreover, internal divisions and mixed signals on the U.S. side have repeatedly crippled otherwise promising diplomatic opportunities, contributing to misunderstanding and miscalculations in Pyongyang about American intentions and behavior.

Indeed, this may help explain why North Korea has so far issued no formal public statement on the reported offer of talks Kim Jong Un made to visiting South Korean officials last week. Kim Jong Un is likely very much aware of this history, and may well be waiting and watching to see whether the Trump administration— chaotic, lacking Korea expertise, and internally divided – is in fact ready to move forward, before confirming that he, as his South Korean interlocutors have reported, is prepared to do so as well.

Mike Chinoy is a former CNN Senior Asia Correspondent and the author of “Meltdown: The Inside Story of the North Korean Nuclear Crisis.” He has visited North Korea 17 times.

This article was originally published on March 15, 2018.

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3 Replies to “Best Of: Fault on Both Sides: 25 Years of North Korea Negotiations”
  1. DPRK acceded to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons as a Non-Nuclear Weapon State Party on 12 Dec 1985. The North Koreans were not acting in good faith after that date at least until 10 Jan 2003 when they announced withdrawal from the Treaty.
    Any negotiations by the U.S. or any other nation on DPRK’s nuclear program was ostensibly a renegotiation of what the North Koreans had ALREADY AGREED TO- not to pursue development of a nuclear weapons program.

  2. Your story on DPRK and USA negotiations re the DPRK nuclear program could have been written by the Dear Leader’s cadaver like sister as it parrots every DPRK claim against the USA re the past multi years negotiations. I am currently in the midst of doing a detailed history from 1994 and find your analysis seriously wanting. One point might be an
    interesting start for discussion: Mr. Putin says he was told by the North’s leader that Pyongyang had a nuclear weapon and this was on his way to a economic summit in Japan of the E8. That was the late summer of 2000, not 2001 as some news stories assumed. Even if 2001, the story blows out of the water the evil Bush narrative and the poor dear put upon DPRK just struggling to be understood and keep at bay the hostile USA! As Walter Pincus argued within the last year, diplomacy can work with the DPRK, as Pincus explained the USS Pueblo proves as our sailors were released peacefully without force being used. Right. Sure. Just as IF Stone claiming the USA and ROK started the Korean War. Rewriting history is fun. As the WSJ article on politics today explained truth doesn’t matter anymore. Scoring points against the USA does. Jeanne Kirkpatrick was right. “They always blame America first.”

    1. Mike Chinoy offers us an excellent, clear, detailed, balanced and objective analysis. There is enough blame to go around. I would add that the U.S. can’t expect other nations to stop developing nuclear weapons while we continue to pursue and modernize our own. Until the U.S. and other nuclear states rid the world of their own arsenals, other nations will still wait them. We place too much prestige on nuclear weapons. Until we devalue them, other nations will want them too. t

      Peter Huessy (reader’s comment above) offers no evidence to back his claims.