You are on page 1of 7

Dealing with Iran Threat: Lessons from Diplomatic Negotiation with North

Korea on Denuclearization
by Dennis Halpin with Dr. Yleem Poblete contributing
The recent disclosure of a secret letter sent by President Obama to the Iranian leader caused
public uproar just a few weeks before the final round of Iran nuclear talks in Vienna. Yet this
presidential letter to the head of a regime which continues on a path to the development of
nuclear weapons, in defiance of both international agreements and the world community, has its
parallel with the failed North Korean process as well.
In December 2007, it was disclosed by the New York Times and other media1 that President
George W. Bush, at the suggestion of Secretary of State Rice and then Six-Party chief negotiator
Ambassador Christopher Hill, had written a letter to then North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. The
letter, addressed to Dear Mr. Chairman, sounded similar in its tone to that of President Obama
who urged Iran in an UNGA speech this fall to not let this opportunity pass.
President George W. Bushs December 2007 letter held out the prospect of normalized relations
with the United States if North Korea fully disclosed its nuclear programs and dismantled its
nuclear reactor, according to then administration officials. Although the letter was not secret
the Administration at the time declined to make copies of the letter available. The announcement
of the letter came as quite a surprise as President George W, Bush had referred to North Korea as
part of an axis of evil during his 2002 State of the Union address and had reportedly referred to
Kim Jong Il as a pygmy and a tyrant who starves his people.
The George W. Bush letter was sent to the North Korean leader a mere three months after an
Israeli surgical strike in the Syrian desert in September2007 had eliminated a nuclear plant near
the Euphrates River. This plant was widely reported as being supplied with material from North
Korea. The plants layout in the Syrian desert was reportedly a near carbon copy of the Yonbyon
nuclear facility in North Korea which provided fissile material which was used in North Koreas
nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009 (and possibly for the third test in 2013).
Given the central role played by the Yongbyon facility in achieving Pyongyangs self-stated goal
of becoming a nuclear power state, as publicly acknowledged by then IAEA director general
Halpin & Poblete, North Korea
Page 1 of 7

Mohamed ElBaradei in April 2009,2 Pyongyangs activities in the Syrian desert should be
considered the most dangerous, overt example of North Koreas nuclear proliferation. (Newly
arrived U.S. Ambassador to Seoul Mark Lipperts October 30th statement to the South Korean
wire service Yonhap that "I'll work to ensure that we will remain fully aligned in our efforts to
achieve the complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization of North Korea and prevent
proliferation of key technologies" looks rather like the adage of closing the barn door after the
horse has gotten out given the statement by Mr. ElBaradei.3
The letter from George W. Bush to Kim Jong Il was widely perceived as seeking to achieve a
tangible diplomatic legacy achievement during the last two years of his administration, this
closely paralleling President Obamas overly optimistic approach to Iran seeking a similar
breakthrough in the last two years of his own administration. North Korea had reportedly agreed
in October 2007 to dismantle all of its nuclear facilities and to disclose all of its past and present
nuclear programs by the end of the year in return in return for about a million tons of fuel oil or
its equivalent in economic aid.
The pledge to provide a full and complete disclosure of North Koreas nuclear programs was
based upon a September 2005 Six-Party Joint Statement (from the Fourth Round) which
unanimously reaffirmed that the goal of the Six-Party Talks is the verifiable denuclearization of
the Korean Peninsula in a peaceful manner. This was followed by another Joint Statement
issued by the Six Parties in February 2007 (Fifth Round) in which North Korea will shut down
and seal the Yongbyon nuclear facility, including the reprocessing facility and invite back IAEA
personnel to conduct all necessary monitoring and verifications and, in return, the other five
parties in the six-party talks will provide emergency energy assistance to North Korea in the
initial phase of 50,000 tons of heavy fuel oil, to commence within 60 days.
North Korea issued a partial, incomplete inventory list in November 2007 and stated that it was
awaiting completion of the promised aid shipments. Pyongyang made what was seen as a largely
symbolic gesture in June 2008 by exploding the cooling tower of the Yongbyon nuclear plant a
structure which a number of experts agreed could be easily rebuilt in a scene telecast by CNN
cable news and news networks from around the world. At the same time it issued an updated,
though still partial account of its nuclear arms program, which failed to address in any way
Pyongyangs suspected second-track highly enriched uranium (HEU) program for the
manufacture of nuclear weapons. The New York Times reported that: Almost simultaneously,
President George W. Bush announced that Washington was removing North Korea from the U.S.

Halpin & Poblete, North Korea
Page 2 of 7

list of state sponsors of terrorism, and issued a proclamation lifting some sanctions under the
Trading with the Enemy Act.
Looking at the P5+1 negotiations with Iran, the Joint Plan of Action with ever changing
requirements and deadlines, the easing of sanctions on Tehran under dubious claims of
cooperation on the nuclear front while ignoring the regimes missile activities and statesponsorship of terrorism, it would appear the Obama Administration and Western allies are
content with following the failed North Korea model for its engagement with Iran.
The removal of North Korea (DPRK) from the State Departments list of state sponsors of
terrorism formally took place on October 11, 2008. This action caused dismay especially for
Americas ally Japan where it was widely perceived as a betrayal of a previous commitment.
In Congressional testimony in April 2004, Cofer Black, the Ambassador-at-large for Counterterrorism in the first George W. Bush Administration, stated that the abduction issue is one of
the most important elements in the designation of North Korea as a terrorism-sponsoring state.
As late as in April 2007 the Country Reports on Terrorism had stated that The DPRK continued
to harbor four Japanese Red Army members who participated in a jet hijacking in 1970. The
Japanese government continued to seek a full accounting of the fate of the 12 Japanese nationals
believed to have been abducted by DPRK state entities; five such abductees have been
repatriated to Japan since 2002.
President Bushs April 2006 White House meeting with Sakie Yokota, the mother of Japans
most famous citizen abducted by North Korea, schoolgirl Megumi Yokota, also raised
expectations in Japan that Washington would not alter its position on North Korea as a state
sponsor of terrorism until the issue of Japanese abductees was resolved. Bush reportedly
referred to the meeting as one of the most moving of his presidency.
The Bush Administration gamble on making firm headway on the North Korean nuclear issue, as
urged by negotiator Chris Hill, backfired. After North Koreas removal from the terrorism list,
Pyongyang reneged on the verbal assurances it had reportedly given to Ambassador Hill that it
would accede to a transparent verification protocol for denuclearization. As a result, the SixParty talks collapsed in December 2008 (they have yet to reconvene almost six years later.)
In the first six months of 2009 Pyongyang abducted two U.S. journalists along the Chinese
border, followed by missile tests and a nuclear test in the spring. In May 2012 North Korea
officially announced that it had changed its constitution to declare the country a nuclear-armed
state. As Graham Allison, a Harvard professor and expert on proliferation publicly noted:
When the history of this era is written, the scorecard will be Kim 8, Bush 0.

Halpin & Poblete, North Korea

Page 3 of 7

In this regard, neither the Clinton Administration which preceded nor the Obama Administration
which followed has been any more successful with North Korean nuclear diplomacy. The
Yongbyon nuclear facility, which included a reactor, began construction in 1980, with Soviet
technical assistance and went critical in 1986. In December 1985 North Korea had acceded to the
Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT).
After a report as required by the treaty on implementation was submitted by Pyongyang in May
1992 and IAEA inspections began, inconsistencies emerged between North Koreas initial
submission and IAEA findings. North Korea refused to provide access to certain sites and was
declared as being noncompliant in April 1993, providing the new, incoming Clinton
Administration with a full blown foreign policy crisis.
Tensions increased, with a threat of renewed war on the Korean peninsula, until North Korean
leader Kim Il Sung invited former U.S. President Jimmy Carter as an intermediary to Pyongyang
in June 1994. Carter, though in the capacity of a private citizen with no authorization to negotiate
from the Clinton Administration, gained a verbal commitment from Kim Il Sung to stop his
nuclear program. When Kim Il Sung died of heart attack a few weeks later, the successor regime
in Pyongyang felt compelled to carry out the last expressed wishes of the Great Leader.
Assistant Secretary of State for Political-Military Affairs Robert Gallucci was the chief U.S
negotiator in the drawing up and implementation of the denuclearization agreement which was
known as the Agreed Framework. Signed on October 21, 1994, the Agreed Framework froze
the North Korean reprocessing of spent plutonium fuel at the Yongbyon nuclear plant with the
provision of proliferation resistant light water reactors (LWRs) instead. In addition, 500,000 tons
of heavy fuel oil (HFO) per year were to be provided to North Korea. North Korea agreed to
remain as a party to the NPT and IAEA inspections would resume. Spent fuel rods would be
stored and disposed of WITHIN North Korea.
The Agreed Framework began to unravel in October 2002 when a US delegation led by Assistant
Secretary of State James A. Kelly arrived in Pyongyang and confronted North Korean officials
with evidence that North Korea had been involved in a covert highly enriched uranium (HEU)
program. The North Koreans vigorously denied the charges. The United States halted HFO
shipments in December 2002 because of the impasse. Pyongyang, in retaliation, announced its
withdrawal from the NPT ion January 10, 2003. This was followed in February 2005 by a
formal declaration by Pyongyang that it had manufactured nuclear weapons as a nuclear
deterrent for self-defense. This was followed in October 2006 by Pyongyangs conducting of
its first underground nuclear test. The Agreed Framework was over.

Halpin & Poblete, North Korea

Page 4 of 7


An unclassified CIA fact sheet provided to the U.S. Congress in November 2002 following the
Kelly mission to Pyongyang reported that there was "clear evidence indicating the North has
begun constructing a centrifuge facility." The report further asserted that this plant utilizing
highly enriched uranium (HEU) processing could produce enough HEU for two or more nuclear
weapons per year when completed. Certain experts who were skeptical of the assessment
presented the view that HEU was a red herring put forward by the George W. Bush
Administration to undermine the Clinton era Agreed Framework.
New evidence publicly surfaced near the end of the George W. Bush Administration regarding
North Koreas HEU processing. Stephen Hadley, the national security adviser, in an exit press
interview in January 2009, expressed concern that North Korea might have continued to engage
in uranium enrichment activities despite a Six-Party pledge to give up all nuclear weapons. His
remarks followed the discovery by government scientists of HEU particles found in documents
and aluminum tubes provided by North Korea as a part of the verification process.
After repeated denials, Pyongyang abruptly reversed course on the HEU issue in November
2010. A U.S. delegation led by Stanford University Professor Siegfried Hecker, and including
John Lewis and Robert Carlin, arrived to visit the Yongbyon facility. They were then shown in
the Yongbyon complex a small, recently completed, industrial-scale uranium-enrichment
facility and an experimental light-water reactor (LWR) under construction. Hecker recorded in
an article published in Foreign Affairsthat I was stunned by the sight of 2,000 centrifuges in
two cascade halls and an ultramodern control roomI was amazed by its scale and
sophistication. Instead of finding a few dozen first-generation centrifuges, we saw rows of
advanced centrifuges, apparently fully operational.
Hecker pointed in Foreign Affairs to Pakistan as the likely provider of the technology needed for
the development of such an HEU facility. The items needed to manufacture the centrifuges were
likely obtained through North Korea's complex and far-reaching procurement network -- in
which Pakistan likely played a significant role. Former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf
admitted in his memoirs that the Pakistani scientist A. Q. Khan delivered what amounted to an
enrichment starter kit of 24 centrifuges around the year 2000. There were also reports that before
A. Q. Khan's house arrest in 2004, North Korean scientists had cooperated closely with the Khan
Research Laboratories, which provided hands-on training at their centrifuge facilities.
It was now clear that North Korea had consistently deceived the international community by
maintaining a second-track for development of nuclear weapons through HEU processing
throughout the whole period of implementation of the failed Agreed Framework. It also meant
that North Korea had a means for producing two or more additional nuclear weapons per year.

Halpin & Poblete, North Korea

Page 5 of 7


North Korea has long engaged in illicit activities, such as drug smuggling and counterfeiting of
US hundred dollar bill super notes, to both fund its nuclear and missile programs and to
maintain its elite in power. Banco Delta Asia (BDA), a Macao-based bank owned by the Delta
Asia Financial Group, was cited by the U.S. Treasury Department in March 2007 because of the
business the bank conducted with North Korean entities, including holding $25 million North
Korean deposits obtained through suspected illicit activities.
Treasury invoked Section 311 of the USA Patriot Act which calls for blocking access to e
American banks by state sponsors of terrorism (in 2007 North Korea was still on the state
sponsor of terrorism list), alleging that BDA was engaged in money laundering. Then U.S.
Treasury Under-Secretary Stuart Levey stated that an eighteen-month Treasury investigation
confirmed the bank's "willingness to turn a blind eye to illicit activity, notably by its North
Korean-related client. The resulting sanctions imposed on BDA included the freezing of North
Koreas bank deposits. The sanctions imposed on BDA, which is owned by a Chinese family,
reportedly intimidated Chinese banks which feared loss of access to the international financial
system if they conducted business with North Korea.
The sanctions also disrupted North Koreas ability to transfer foreign exchange. Pyongyang
raised BDA at the Six-Party talks on its nuclear disarmament, threatening to hold progress in the
negotiations hostage to resolution of the banking issue. U.S. chief Six-Party negotiator
Ambassador Christopher Hill moved to resolve the BDA issue by unfreezing the North Korean
assets. In June 2007 the $25 million in frozen assets were transferred to North Korea via the
New York Federal Reserve Bank after a number of private banks reportedly declined to facilitate
the transfer out of concern that they could be subject to future sanctions.
The old saying fool me once, shame on you (the Agreed Framework); fool me twice, shame on
me (the Six-Party talks) seems to apply to Washingtons diplomatic negotiations with North
Korea on denuclearization. Despite the spectacular failure of both the Clinton and George W.
Bush administrations in their attempts to engage North Korea, the Obama Administration, under
Special Envoy Glyn Davies, made its own aborted attempt to engage Pyongyang in early 2012.
Named the Leap Day Agreement because the preliminary agreement was reached on February
29th, the pledge to impose a moratorium on Pyongyangs nuclear and missile programs almost
immediately fell apart when Pyongyang announced its intention to conduct a missile launch near
the 100th anniversary on April 15th of North Korean founder Kim Il Sungs birth, in violation of a
number of UN Security Council resolutions.
The agreement was also noteworthy in that it broke with the long-term policy of the Clinton and
George W. Bush Administrations specifically de-linking denuclearization negotiations from food
Halpin & Poblete, North Korea
Page 6 of 7

assistance on the principle of Ronald Reagan that a hungry child knows no politics. Instead of
basing food assistance on assessed nutritional needs for at-risk populations in North Korea,
Ambassador Davies specifically included 240,000 metric tons of nutritional assistance to sweeten
the Leap Day deal.
North Korea made an unsuccessful launch of a long-range missile on April 13, 2012. In May
North Korea revised its constitution to declare itself a nuclear-armed state and in February
2013 it carried out its third, and reportedly most successful underground nuclear test. The SixParty talks have been suspended for nearly six years, negotiations remain at a standstill as the
Obama Administration adheres to a policy of strategic patience. Still, North Korea has been
quite effective in engaging American presidents late in their second terms as they seek legacy
issues through foreign policy initiatives. In the last months of President Clintons term, thenSecretary of State Madeleine Albright traveled to Pyongyang to meet North Korean leader Kim
Jong Il and President Clinton almost traveled to North Korea himself.
In his last months in office, George W. Bush sought a breakthrough with North Korea by
authorizing the removal of North Korea from the State Departments list of state sponsors of
terrorism. It remains to be seen whether Barack Obama will follow Bill Clinton and George W.
Bush on the road to Pyongyang, or Tehran, in search of legacy.


Halpin & Poblete, North Korea

Page 7 of 7