All the Presidents’ Problem: Pursuing Peace with North Korea

In October 1994, the Clinton administration had momentous news to share with the world. It had reached an agreement with North Korea to incrementally achieve normalization and denuclearization. Pyongyang pledged to freeze and dismantle its nuclear reactors, submit to international inspections and comply with the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. The U.S. promised North Korea financing for two light water reactors, oil shipments, and improved diplomatic and economic ties. Despite early optimism, the framework was troubled from the start, facing disruptions in oil shipments, delays in reactor construction, and North Korean resistance to inspections. Crisis came in 2002, when the Bush administration revealed that the North was secretly enriching uranium. The U.S. consequently ceased financing the light water reactors, and the DPRK expelled international inspectors. Talks resumed in 2003, but after six years, were abandoned without a breakthrough.

Why recall the 1994 Agreed Framework? The agreement’s early promise and eventual collapse help to illuminate the prospect for negotiation with North Korea today. Earlier this month, the Biden administration completed its North Korea policy review, a weighty rite de passage for every new president’s national security team. Biden’s staff announced a policy of “particular relief for particular steps,” while adhering to the principle of North Korea’s complete denuclearization. This takes a middle course between President Trump’s “everything for everything” grand bargain approach and President Obama’s “nothing for nothing” posture of strategic patience. Seemingly then, Biden is leaving the possibility open for an incremental approach like the Agreed Framework.  

Whatever Biden does, nuclear proliferation in Korea has only grown in danger since the Agreed Framework unraveled. The problem is urgent, but seemingly insoluble. Victor Cha confronts this dilemma in his 2012 book, Impossible State: North Korea, Past and Future. A former nonproliferation negotiator, Cha addresses the ideological and material conditions underlying North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons, the vulnerabilities that could cause the regime to collapse, and how dangerous such an implosion would be for the region. He argues that the U.S. must prepare for such an eventuality, and prioritize North Korea as an immediate risk, not a perennial irritant or future problem.


The Impossible State: North Korea, Past and Future
Victor Cha, Senior Vice President and Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies

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