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Cotton’s misguided history lesson on the North Korean nuclear deal

(AP Photo/Danny Johnston)

“It only took North Korea 12 years to get a nuclear weapon from the time we reached the Agreed Framework in 1994 to the time they tested their first weapon in 2006.”

— Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.), interview with Breitbart, March 12, 2015

This is an interesting observation made by Sen. Cotton, who spearheaded the letter signed by 47 Senate Republicans to Iranian leaders. The letter warned that any agreement reached by the Iranian government and other world powers, including the United States, could be undone by a future president after Obama leaves office. (The letter has been highly controversial, and obviously The Fact Checker takes no position on the merits of issuing it.)

In the interview, Cotton raised this statistic to highlight the fact that the agreement being negotiated with Iran is said to have a 10-year window, after which restrictions on Iran’s nuclear program would be eased. “Iran might break the deal in the next 10 years and get a nuclear weapon, but they might simply keep the deal for the next 10 years and get a nuclear weapon,” he argued.

But Cotton has gotten the story backward. North Korea got the bomb because the agreement collapsed. Yet at the same time, one could make the case that the story of the Agreed Framework supports the key point espoused in Cotton’s letter. So let’s explore this conundrum. (Note: Glenn Kessler covered the collapse of the Agreed Framework and subsequent efforts to negotiate a nuclear deal with Pyongyang as The Washington Post’s diplomatic correspondent  from 2002-2011.)

The Facts

In 1994, the Bill Clinton administration negotiated an agreement with North Korea to essentially freeze its nascent nuclear program in exchange for the eventual construction of two light-water reactors. North Korea’s program was clearly created to churn out nuclear weapons; the reactor at Yongbyon was not connected to the power grid and appeared only designed to produce plutonium, a key ingredient for nuclear weapons. The theory of the deal was that, with the plant shuttered and the plutonium under the close watch of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), North Korea would not be able to produce a bomb.

The deal was hugely controversial in Congress. Just as with Obama’s Iran negotiations, Clinton structured the agreement so that it was not considered a treaty that would have required ratification by the Senate. As with Iran, there was also an international component, with South Korea, Japan and a European agency joining with the United States to create an organization to implement the accord.

As Iowa State University professor Young Whan Kihl  noted in an article exploring the political ramifications:

Since the “Agreed Framework” took the form of a presidential “executive agreement,” rather than a formal treaty (such as SALT I & II), the U.S. Senate did not need to give “advise and consent” under the U.S. Constitution. However, the terms of the agreement are controversial and subject to scrutiny by the Republican-dominant U.S. Congress that began a series of congressional hearings in mid-January 1995. Some congressmen and senators demanded that the “agreed framework” be treated as a formal treaty; this move was resisted by the Clinton Administration but, because of the budgetary and appropriation clauses of the agreement, the U.S. Congress was inevitably drawn into the process of implementation and verification of the agreement.

Interestingly, a key policymaker on North Korea at the time was Wendy R. Sherman — who is now negotiating the agreement with Iran. (Sherman did not negotiate the North Korea deal but was closely involved in its implementation during Clinton’s second term.)

So how did North Korea get its hands on the nuclear material? George W. Bush became president in 2001 and was highly skeptical of Clinton’s deal with North Korea. The new administration terminated missile talks with Pyongyang and then spent months trying to develop its own policy.

Then intelligence agencies determined that North Korea was cheating on the agreement by trying to develop nuclear material through another method — highly-enriched uranium. The Bush administration sent an envoy who confronted North Korea — and the regime was said to have belligerently confirmed it.

In response, the Bush administration terminated a supply of fuel oil that was essential to the agreement — and then North Korea quickly kicked out the U.N. inspectors, restarted the nuclear plant and began developing its nuclear weapons, using the material in radioactive fuel rods that previously had been under the close watch of the IAEA. Japan and South Korea, the key partners in the accord, were not happy with the decision to terminate the Agreed Framework, but there was little they could do about it.

After North Korea conducted its first nuclear test in 2006, the Bush administration tried desperately to negotiate a new accord with Pyongyang, including offering new concessions, but those efforts ultimately failed. The nuclear genie by then was out of the bottle. The issue was considered such a loser that the Obama administration has barely bothered to restart disarmament talks.

Questions have since been raised about whether the Bush administration misinterpreted North Korea’s supposed confirmation — and doubts also emerged about the quality of U.S. intelligence that inspired the confrontation. But Bush’s later efforts to negotiate a new accord were hampered by fresh evidence that North Korea actually did have an undisclosed uranium-enrichment program.

Nevertheless, contrary to Cotton’s statement, North Korea obtained the bomb not because of the agreement, but because the agreement failed. Presumably, North Korea would have gotten its hands on the plutonium sooner if not for the original agreement.

Yet the North Korean example also provides support for Cotton’s key point in his letter — that a future president would not necessarily be compelled to support a deal negotiated with Iran. Bush’s administration was stocked with people who were vehemently opposed to the Agreed Framework, and that certainly affected the pace of the diplomacy. The president himself was a key skeptic. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell was even slapped down when he suggested the administration would follow the path set by the Clinton administration.

Analyst Jeffrey Lewis recently wrote that “I suspect Clinton or [Al] Gore would have responded to intelligence about the enrichment program in the same fashion as Bush did,” but former Clinton officials have disagreed. They have privately argued that they would have found a way to manage the process so that the plutonium would have remained out of North Korea’s hands. (There is certainly evidence that the Bush administration seized on the signs of a clandestine program to force a confrontation.) Moreover, a continuing diplomatic process might have meant that Pyongyang would have had less reason to find ways to cheat on the Agreed Framework. 

But that’s all speculative. No one really knows what would have happened if a president more supportive of the Agreed Framework, such as Gore, had been in the White House.

[Joel Wit, who was in charge of implementing the Agreed Framework during the Clinton administration, writes that Lewis is “just wrong" and a Gore presidency would have handled the situation differently. In the Clinton administration,"we did know about the DPRK cheating on the highly-enriched uranium front starting in 1998 and had a strategy for dealing with it, namely to confront the DPRK and to use the leverage provided by the Agreed Framework in order to make the solution stick," he said, using the initials for the official name of North Korea (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea).]

(Some former Clinton administration officials will also concede that they never thought they would have to build the light-water reactors because they assumed, wrongly, that the regime would collapse before the reactors would be built. So one could argue that the Agreed Framework was built on a bad bet in the first place.) [Wit notes that if even this was the case, it had no impact on how the deal was implemented. “The Japanese and Republic of Korea didn’t make the significant financial and other commitments they made just to fake it," he said.]

The Bottom Line

We’re not going to do a Pinocchio Test here, but Cotton cited North Korea for the wrong reasons. The failure of the Agreed Framework, not the deal itself, led to North Korea building and testing nuclear weapons.

Yet the North Korea example certainly demonstrates how a new administration, skeptical of such an arms-control agreement, could take steps to undermine and eventually terminate it. For obvious political reasons, Clinton chose not to obtain congressional approval. But without an early buy-in from congressional Republicans, once a president from a different party was elected, the North Korea accord was set on a path to failure.

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