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At Issue: What is the history of the now-broken nuclear non-proliferation agreement with North Korea known as the Agreed Framework and what has its failure cost the United States?

Background: On Oct. 16, 2002 North Korean government officials admitted their country had secretly continued development of nuclear weapons in violation of a 1994 non-proliferation agreement with the United States.

Coming from a nation identified, along with Iraq and Iran, as a member of terrorism's Axis of Evil, North Korea's nuclear weapons confession threatened peace in the Korean peninsula and complicated matters for a Bush administration, already planning a war against Iraq.

Fearing that immediate U.S. military action might prompt North Korea to attack South Korea, currently home to some 37,000 U.S. troops, the White House expressed hopes that diplomatic efforts would be sufficient to convince the North Koreans to ''comply with its commitments . . . and to eliminate its nuclear weapons program in a verifiable manner."

It was, however, well-intentioned "diplomatic efforts" by the Clinton administration that failed in the first place. That piece of 1994 diplomacy was known as the "Agreed Framework."

North Korea's Nuclear Past
Lacking its own supplies of traditional energy resources like oil or coal, North Korea turned to nuclear power generation and by the mid-1980s, had at least four nuclear power complexes in operation. However, North Korea's reactors, built with the assistance of China and the Soviet Union, were disclosed to be "graphite-moderated" reactors, a type capable of producing weapons grade plutonium.

This fact spurred the interest of U.S. intelligence forces who determined that North Korea's largest nuclear facility at Yongbyon, along with three smaller facilities, were indeed producing plutonium. By 1985 U.S. defense experts estimated that the newly discovered North Korean nuclear program had already generated enough plutonium for two nuclear weapons and was poised to rapidly expand production. In addition, intelligence showed the N. Koreans to be quickly developing their ballistic missile weapons delivery systems. U.S. defense officials determined a N. Korean nuclear arsenal would create the following threats:

  • Direct threat to South Korea and U.S. forces stationed there
  • Possibility of igniting a nuclear arms race throughout Asia
  • Would compromise enforceability of all international nuclear arms control treaties
  • N. Korea could export its weapons technology to other terrorist states and organizations
  • With improved missile systems, N. Korea could threaten all of Northeast Asia

Diplomacy and Deception: 'A sea of fire'
From 1985 to 1992, N. Korea "bought time" for its nuclear weapons program by entering into a series of international diplomatic agreements under which it promised to "deweaponize" its reactors and halt further production of plutonium.

By 1994, however, N. Korea had violated the terms of most of the non-proliferation agreements and simply withdrawn from the rest. By refusing in 1993 to disclose to international arms control agencies how much plutonium it had produced, N. Korea virtually admitted that its nuclear weapons program had continued unchecked.

When in June of 1994 the Unites States, S. Korea and several allied nations succeeded in getting the U.N. Security Council to evoke sanctions against them, the N. Koreans declared the sanctions an "act of war" and threatened to turn South Korea into "a sea of fire."

Clinton Negotiates the 'Agreed Framework'
Believing a diplomatic solution still possible, former President Clinton forged an agreement with N. Korean President Kim Il-sung that the North would temporarily halt its nuclear weapons program and return to non-proliferation negotiations in Geneva. The now-violated agreement, signed on Oct. 21, 1994 became known as the "Agreed Framework."

Key components of the 1994 Agreed Framework included:

  • The U.S. and N. Korea would cooperate in fully replacing N. Korea's graphite-moderated reactors with light-water reactors (not capable of plutonium production) by 2003. Graphite-moderated reactors were to be shut down until converted.

  • To offset energy lost due to the powering down of N. Korea's graphite-moderated reactors, the United States agreed to supply N. Korea with up to 500,000 tons of heavy oil for heating and electricity production annually, until all reactors had been converted.

  • N. Korea agreed to return to compliance with all international nuclear non-proliferation agreements and to eventually stabilize, store and dispose of all spent nuclear fuel already produced.

  • Both the U.S. and N. Korea would work to achieve full normalization of political and economic relations.

A Broken Framework
As we now know, North Korea failed to uphold its end of the Agreed Framework. Appearing October 20 on NBC's "Meet the Press," Secretary of State Colin Powell stated, "When we told North Korea that we knew what they were doing, they came back the next day, admitted it, blamed us for their actions and then said they considered that agreement nullified."

Sen. Jesse Helms (R-North Carolina), the Ranking Republican Member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was not quite so reserved when he stated, "At long last, the truth has come out. North Korea has admitted that the Agreed Framework negotiated by the Clinton Administration is a falsehood."

"The bottom line is that North Korea was out of compliance with its international obligations in 1994 when the Agreed Framework was signed; it remained out of compliance throughout the implementation of the Framework; and it is today out of compliance with its international obligations," said Helms.

Further U.S. Aid to North Korea
In addition to the oil supplied under the 1994 Agreed Framework, the United States, as early as 1997, began sending North Korea food medicine and other forms of humanitarian aid.

The contributions of U.S. humanitarian aid to N. Korea began in 1997, in response to an appeal from the United Nations World Food Program. Unprecedented flooding during 1995 and 1996 had wiped out much of N. Korea's farm land, resulting in chronic food production shortfalls and widespread malnutrition.

U.S. defense analysts, viewing the rapidly declining economic stability and impending starvation in N. Korea as a threat to peace in the region, recommended continuation of the humanitarian aid program. Ironically, defense planners also reasoned that the aid would help "buy" N. Korea's compliance with terms of the Agreed Framework.

By 2000, the United States contribution of food and other forms of humanitarian aid to North Korea had amounted to over $61 million.

Needless to say, North Korea's admission of its continued development of nuclear weapons in direct violation of the Agreed Framework, may bring an end to the flow of U.S. humanitarian and economic aid. When asked about the possibility of ending aid to N. Korea, Secretary of State Powell responded, "We are now looking at what should be the consequences of their [North Korea's] action and we will act, step by step, after we have had a chance to fully consult with our friends and allies."

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