Just over 20 years ago, North Korean technicians extracted 8,000 spent fuel rods from the Yongbyon nuclear reactor – enough for five or six atomic bombs if reprocessed into weapons-grade plutonium.
Designed to be a provocation, North Korea’s move focused minds in Washington: The Pentagon devised a military strike plan that would destroy the reactor and entomb the plutonium, while – it was hoped – avoiding a Chernobyl-type radioactive cloud.
That’s also when the diplomacy began that led to the 1994 US-North Korea Agreed Framework.
North Korea was the Iran nuclear crisis of its day, with the risk of failure and chance of war just as high as it is today, as Iran and six world powers aim to meet a June 30 deadline for a deal ensuring Iran cannot produce a bomb.
The North Korea deal failed to prevent Pyongyang from secretly going nuclear and detonating its first atomic bomb in 2006. But while critics of the Iran talks today point to North Korea as proof that diplomacy is pointless – Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu charges that the Iran deal “repeats these mistakes” – some analysts say the Iran and North Korea cases differ so significantly that there is a far greater chance of success this time.
“First it was the Soviet Union, they were the original ‘rogue state,’ and everyone was saying you can’t do a deal with those guys,” says Joel Wit, a senior fellow at the US-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University in Washington, who was coordinator for the Agreed Framework from 1995 to 2000.
“We did deals, and Reagan did a deal, and some of the people criticizing this deal criticized Reagan for dealing with Gorbachev, and on and on,” says Mr. Wit. “The fact is you can do deals with rogue states ... if the deal is in the rogue state’s interests.… But of course you need insurance, and that is where the verification comes in."
In 1994, North Korea agreed to freeze its nuclear weapons program and allow inspections in exchange for two new electricity-generating light-water nuclear reactors, “heavy oil” to provide energy until those came on line, the lifting of US sanctions, and political benefits.
Yet the bilateral Agreed Framework ran to just four pages, with many of its provisions vague. The document stated that the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea would “allow implementation” of safeguards obligations and permit “inspections required” by the UN nuclear watchdog agency. But there was no enforcement mechanism for failure to comply.
The Iran deal and annexes, by contrast, could run to more than 150 pages and will be far more detailed, from stricter verification measures to technical steps to curb Iran’s nuclear work, and the step-by-step sanctions relief Iran gets in return.
So what are the real lessons from the US-North Korea deal? And why is Iran not North Korea?
How effective was the North Korean deal?
North Korea today is believed to have a dozen nuclear weapons, and over the weekend tested submarine-launched ballistic missiles in a show of military prowess. But the number of nuclear devices likely would have been far higher without the deal, negotiators say, if intelligence estimates decades ago proved true that North Korea could build 30 Nagasaki-size bombs a year by the end of the 1990s.
“Although our policy ultimately failed, the agreement did not,” Robert Gallucci, the US chief negotiator of the Agreed Framework, and Wit, wrote recently in The New York Times, noting that “more than 20 years later [the predicted expansion] still hasn’t happened.”
In a critique of that view, conservative writer Max Boot and Sue Mi Terry wrote in Foreign Affairs: “If Iran is anything like North Korea, it will seek to gain the benefits of a deal – notably, the lifting of sanctions – without truly ending its nuclear program.”
If North Korea today has fewer nuclear weapons than once expected, Mr. Boot and Ms. Terry argue, that was because of regime “dysfunction rather than any lack of desire to acquire more weapons.”
In their response, Messrs. Gallucci and Wit say that version of “history ignores history,” and note that “as a direct result of the agreement, the North gutted a decades-old multi-billion-dollar plutonium production program.”
A deal does not equal friendship
The Agreed Framework included full normalization between the US and North Korea. For Pyongyang, it was a high-priority request, but seemed an impossible task for Washington to achieve quickly with a regime so vilified and on the US list of state sponsors of terrorism.
One result was US political foot-dragging that angered North Korea and led to provocations such as North Korea’s 1998 test of a ballistic missile that flew over the Japanese island of Honshu.
The Iran deal seeks to sidestep this problem by limiting the talks to the nuclear issue only, recognizing that 36 years of mutual US-Iran hostility – which is still an article of faith for hard-liners on both sides – won’t disappear anytime soon.
“I would say that’s a strength, because you are not pushing either system farther than it’s prepared to go now,” says George Perkovich, a nuclear expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.
“The Iranians understand that you’re still going to be talking about human rights, the sanctions on terrorism are still going to be there,” says Mr. Perkovich. “We understand that somebody’s going to stand up [in Iran] at Friday prayers and say, ‘Death to America.’ They are still going to support Hezbollah. There is an agreement that there is still going to be competition, so it’s less pretend.”
Follow-through is required
A critical lesson from the North Korea experience is the need for top-level, continued attention to avoid failure.
When the 1994 deal was signed, President Bill Clinton vowed in a letter to North Korean leader Kim Jong-il to “use the full powers of my office” to uphold US obligations.
But a host of world issues pushed North Korea out of the headlines, from the aftermath of Somalia and the Rwandan genocide to the Bosnian war and military campaigns in Iraq and Kosovo in the late 1990s.
While construction did begin on the two light-water reactors – with the US taking a tertiary role behind South Korea and Japan, which footed most of the $6 billion bill – ultimately the US failed to deliver improved political ties and the sanctions relief promised to North Korea, setting in motion a negative chain of events.
In January 2002, President George W. Bush listed North Korea as part of an “Axis of Evil,” and called its leader a tyrant and a “pygmy.”
When Pyongyang was caught in late 2002 pursuing a secret uranium enrichment path to a bomb, the US halted shipments of heavy oil, and the deal collapsed.
The North Koreans then restarted frozen nuclear facilities, kicked out IAEA inspectors, vowed to resume plutonium reprocessing – its primary path to a bomb – and pulled out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
One explanation for the muted US reaction was timing: President Bush was focused on fallout from the 9/11 attacks and on toppling the Taliban and hunting Al Qaeda in Afghanistan.
“Continuing priority to Iraq: President Bush reportedly has said that he does not want two simultaneous crises,” stated a March 2003 report on North Korea by the Congressional Research Service, published days before the Iraq invasion. US officials, it said, “argue that North Korea’s actions do not constitute a crisis.”
The key to a deal working, says Wit, is implementation.
“Everyone assumes that when you reach an agreement you’ve won the war. But implementation in some ways is just as hard if not harder than reaching agreement,” he says. “You’ve got to be able to implement what you promise to do.”
Preserving leverage for both sides
Iran, too, has therefore drawn lessons from the North Korea example – lessons based on whether the US was serious from the start about abiding by its side of the bargain.
Two decades ago, the deal “was indeed crafted with the eventual dissolution of the present North Korean regime in mind,” the Washington Post reported, citing two senior US officials a week after the deal was struck.
"If you were in North Korea's place [and heard that], what would you think about the future of the Agreed Framework?" says Haksoon Paik, director of North Korean studies at the Sejong Institute in Seoul, noting one reason for Pyongyang's reluctance to adhere to the deal.
Mr. Gallucci, the lead negotiator, said years later the Clinton administration didn’t have “enthusiasm for everything the North Koreans wanted,” in terms of the political payoff.
The lesson for Iran is obvious.
“That’s one of the many reasons [the Iranians] want the sanctions relief up front; they don’t trust us at all,” says Perkovich, author of a 26-point comparison between the Iran and North Korea deals.
The same is true with Iran’s demand to keep the deeply buried Fordow facility open with some centrifuges inside, he says, because “that’s leverage if we start reneging.”
“You look through the [Iran] agreement – at least what we know so far – there are a number of places where Iran has kept leverage,” says Perkovich.
The Agreed Framework, he wrote in his Carnegie analysis, left North Korea “with no latent nuclear capability to deter adversaries … and little leverage to compel other actors to meet its economic and strategic needs.”
The proposed Iran deal, however, “would still leave Iran with a latent nuclear deterrent option against states that might mobilize to threaten it strategically.”
That is the kind of leverage, however, that critics of the Iran deal in Israel and Congress fear, and say Iran should never be allowed to have. Mr. Netanyahu argues that any enrichment capacity in Iran at all is a threat to Israel’s existence.
The art of the negotiators of the Iran deal will be balancing the need for both sides to maintain leverage against the other, while also giving sufficient measures to reassure each other, and mutual incentives to stick with it – a combination not attained in the North Korea deal.