“There is a moment in the life of nearly every problem like this when there is an opportunity for it to be seen and clearly understood and still time to deal with it effectively. That moment happened back when Wendy Sherman was negotiating this deal with North Korea. She was the architect of the North Korean nuclear deal. And they paid the ransom, but they did not secure the hostage. And, ironically, North Korea had already gone nuclear when they did the same thing with Iran.”
— Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.), interview on CNN, April 20, 2017

The irony, for some Republicans, appears to be too delicious: The same diplomat who negotiated the ill-fated nuclear deal with North Korea under President Bill Clinton was also the chief negotiator for the nuclear deal with Iran under President Barack Obama. The theory is that just as North Korea found a way to cheat, so will Iran. Franks uttered this line on CNN recently, but it also pops up a lot on right-leaning websites and television programs.

But there’s a big problem with this line of reasoning: Wendy Sherman, Obama’s undersecretary of state who led the talks with Iran, did not negotiate the 1994 North Korean nuclear deal, known as the Agreed Framework. “I am really tired of the inaccuracies,” Sherman said with a sigh.

The Facts

In 1994, the 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 chief negotiator of the 1994 accord was Robert L. Gallucci, at the time the assistant secretary of state for political-military affairs. Sherman was working in the State Department at the time as assistant secretary of state for legislative affairs. Gallucci co-wrote an excellent book about the negotiations, “Going Critical: The First North Korean Nuclear Crisis.” But Sherman merits only one brief mention, on page 376, in reference to a trip she made to Pyongyang in 2000, years after the deal was concluded.

“I don’t recollect Wendy playing any role in the 1993-4 Agreed Framework negotiations, but her deputy did help a great deal in guiding me through the briefings on the Hill after we were done,” Gallucci said. The deal was controversial in Congress, in part because Clinton structured the agreement so that it was not considered a treaty that would have required ratification by the Senate.

Sherman agreed: “Bob Gallucci negotiated the Agreed Framework.”

“My shorthand is that the deal ended the North’s plutonium production program for about a decade — one operating 5-megawatt electrical reactor, one operating reprocessing facility and two gas graphite plutonium production reactors under construction, a 50-megawatt electrical and a 200-megawatt electrical reactor,” Gallucci said. “The intelligence community calculated that if all three were operating, the North would be producing about 200 kilograms of plutonium a year, enough for about 40 nuclear weapons.”

Gallucci added that “it would not be an exaggeration to say that a fair estimate of the DPRK’s nuclear weapons stockpile at the end of the Clinton administration could have been between 50 and 100 nuclear weapons, absent the restraints of the Agreed Framework. Instead, as best we know, the North had no nuclear weapons when the Bush administration took office.” (North Korea’s official name is the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.)

Sherman did become a prominent player on North Korea policy in Clinton’s second term. As counselor to then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Sherman worked with former defense secretary William Perry on a 1999 review of U.S. policy toward North Korea. That review warned that the team had “serious concerns about possible continuing nuclear weapons-related work in the DPRK.” The review also viewed with alarm the North’s continued efforts to improve its long-range missile capability. But it concluded that it was important to keep the Agreed Framework in place.

“Unfreezing Yongbyon remains the North’s quickest and surest path to nuclear weapons,” the review said. “U.S. security objectives may therefore require the U.S. to supplement the Agreed Framework, but we must not undermine or supplant it.”

Sherman, who was named policy coordinator for North Korea, then spearheaded talks to get North Korea to agree to limit the development of its long-range missiles; at one point North Korea agreed to a moratorium on new missile testing. For the first time, a senior North Korean military official visited the United States, and in 2000 Albright became the first secretary of state to visit Pyongyang.

But a final agreement was not completed before Clinton left office in 2001, and the incoming president, George W. Bush, was highly skeptical. Sherman and other former officials say that incoming Secretary of State Colin L. Powell appeared impressed by their progress when they briefed him at his McLean home in late 2000 but that others in the administration were determined to take a more confrontational approach.

The new administration terminated missile talks with Pyongyang and then spent months trying to develop its own policy, labeled “the bold approach.”

Then, in 2002, intelligence agencies determined that North Korea was 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 in December 2002 terminated a regular supply of fuel oil that was linked to the North’s freeze of its nuclear program. 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 had been under the close watch of the IAEA. That’s how North Korea obtained much of the plutonium that it used for its first nuclear test in 2006 and for subsequent tests. (There is also evidence that North Korea earlier had separated a small supply of plutonium from the fuel rods.) Before the Agreed Framework collapsed, the CIA in had warned in November 2002 that this was a possible consequence of letting it fail.

Gallucci, Sherman and other former U.S. officials say that they had tracked information that North Korea was secretly obtaining gas centrifuge technology and equipment from Pakistan that could be used in a uranium enrichment facility. The plan was to use that intelligence as leverage in future talks, but instead the Bush administration viewed it as evidence that North Korea was cheating on the 1994 nuclear deal.

Ironically, 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. North Korea had weapons forged out of plutonium and later also built a uranium-enrichment facility.

Destiny Edwards, a spokeswoman for Franks, tried to claim that the congressman was not referring to the 1994 agreement but to Sherman’s unsuccessful effort several years later to get a missile deal. “The congressman never specified 1994, like you’re insinuating,” Edwards said. “He was referring to the 1999 plan/deal/agreement/arrangement, at which time Wendy Sherman was heading up NK negotiations for Clinton, and during which time a decision was made to ignore North Korea’s violations of the Agreed Framework and provide them hundreds of millions of dollars of food and oil rather than renew sanctions for their violations.”

But this is nonsensical. Franks specifically called Sherman “the architect of the North Korean nuclear deal.” But that agreement had been set in 1994; Sherman was trying to negotiate a missile deal in 2000.

Edwards provided a 1999 opinion article by former secretary of state James A. Baker as evidence of the “deal” negotiated by Sherman. But that article (which does not mention Sherman) only refers to a relatively minor agreement to allow the Perry mission to visit a disputed site in North Korea. The fuel oil referenced by Baker was already being provided under the Agreed Framework, while the State Department has consistently denied that food aid, provided via the U.N. World Food Program, was tied to nuclear negotiations. In any case, it was certainly not a “North Korea nuclear deal” but a relatively insignificant step in the Perry review process.

“I would say that either Rep. Franks is grossly misinformed or wishes, himself, to misinform,” Gallucci said.

The Pinocchio Test

Franks is making an inaccurate and facile observation, seeking to undermine the Iran nuclear accord by insinuating that the same negotiator crafted the failed North Korea deal. But that’s wrong.

Sherman was involved in later negotiations with North Korea over its missiles, but she did not negotiate the Agreed Framework. She said she drew on her experiences with North Korea to help make the Iran accord more sustainable. (The Agreed Framework was only a few pages long, while the Iran accord runs more than 100 pages, many of which are extremely technical and detailed.) “We learned from North Korea, and we learned something from other arms control agreements,” Sherman said.

So, there is a North Korea connection. But depending on your perspective, it actually might undermine Franks’s point.

Three Pinocchios

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Wendy Sherman "was the architect of the North Korean nuclear deal"
in an interview with CNN
Thursday, April 20, 2017