North Korea's expulsion of inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the removal of IAEA monitoring devices and the startup of plutonium-producing operations at its Yongbyon nuclear facility have been cited by Bush administration critics as the result of allegedly bellicose rhetoric by President George W. Bush. But according to documents obtained by INSIGHT, and confirmed by highly placed sources, North Korea already had operational nuclear devices in 1994 when the Clinton administration signed its controversial "oil-for-peace" agreement.
Indeed, North Korea had no intention of abiding by the so-called "Agreed Framework" prohibiting it from developing nuclear weapons that it signed with the Clinton administration in 1994. One report drafted during negotiations for the Agreed Framework states that "North Korea already has close to 10 operational nuclear warheads for its ballistic missiles and two nuclear devices that can be carried by truck or transport plane." This evidence, from reports based mainly on North Korean defectors, raises new questions about the effectiveness of entering an agreement intended to prevent North Korea from gaining access to nuclear weapons. It also raises the foreign-policy stakes for the Bush administration as it attempts to defuse the situation.
Publicly, experts disagree about the state of the North Korean nuclear-weapons program, Some estimates indicate that the Kim Jong-il regime could have a nuclear bomb within one year; others say it already has two. However, the U.S. House of Representatives Task Force on Terrorism and Unconventional Warfare (TFTUW) issued a report in August 1994 that said of the Agreed Framework, "Washington is buying time while maintaining the charade that the DPRK [North Korea] does not have nuclear weapons. Consequently, the United States and its allies have settled into the `do-nothing-for-now' mode, merely postponing the hour of reckoning."
The most recent day of reckoning occurred in October when Pyongyang admitted to having a nuclear-weapons program after being confronted by the Bush administration with evidence that it had been working on an enriched-uranium project since 1998. This was in violation of the Agreed Framework, which had been put in place in 1994 following a similar crisis in 1993. The framework was to provide North Korea with oil and assistance in building two light-water nuclear reactors for domestic-energy needs in exchange for Pyongyang shutting down the plutonium plant in Yongbyon.
The TFTUW report says the deal was based on the false assumption that shutting down the Yongbyon plant would end the threat of North Korea possessing nuclear weapons: "Analysis has centered on determining just how much plutonium North Korea has extracted from its 5 megawatt reactor in Yongbyon. Washington insists that there is no verifiable evidence that plutonium was extracted on any other than one occasion in 1989. Therefore, according to the United States, the DPRK cannot possibly have the plutonium needed for nuclear weapons."
At the time, North Korea was a signatory to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and subject to inspections by the IAEA. Yet the 1994 TFTUW report stated that, "Since June of 1992, activities have intensified in the DPRK's primary nuclear-weapons site at Yongbyon--an elaborate underground complex called Building 500. Pyongyang has argued that the building is merely a nuclear-waste-storage site." In 1993, when IAEA inspectors requested access to Building 500, "the DPRK not only refused, but announced its withdrawal from the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty" according to the report. North Korea began fortifying the suspect complex with "40 military encampments, three air bases and a major ammunition depot, and deployed some 300 heavy antiaircraft guns around the entire Yongbyon complex." According to the report the persistent IAEA request to inspect Building 500 provoked a bellicose response from North Korea. "The DPRK declared its now infamous semiwar state, ordering the mobilization of its armed forces."
At that time, according to the report, North Korea "canceled all IAEA inspections and began quickly removing 4,000 fuel rods from the 5 megawatt reactor in Yongbyon, making it impossible to ascertain whether or not any plutonium had ever been removed." The TFTUW report cites North Korean defectors who "have insisted that plutonium has been extracted clandestinely over the years and used for the production of nuclear warheads." The report states that sources from Russia and the People's Republic of China have confirmed what the North Korean defectors told the United States and points out that North Korea's "refusal to allow any inspection and measurement of the rods ... indicate[s] that North Korea has something to hide."
It was this "nuclear crisis" that led to the 1994 Agreed Framework despite the misgivings of career analysts in the intelligence community who pointed out that the crisis was due to North Korea's decision to disregard prior agreements. A senior defense official familiar with the history of the Agreed Framework tells INSIGHT, "It was an agreement that was bound to fail." To date the checkered history of that agreement is a tapestry of clues that some say should have alarmed Washington about North Korea's strategy. "They had no intention of abiding by the Agreed Framework. They outright refused to let international inspectors have access," the defense official tells INSIGHT on condition that he not be identified. "There were no safeguards; the few inspections called for in the agreement were limited." According to several sources, analysis about the potential risks involved in that kind of agreement with North Korea were not welcome. "Anybody who said anything was ridiculed: `You don't know how things work' we were told" says the Defense official.
A State Department official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, acknowledged that, "There were people who were skeptical from the beginning, but there were many more who said it was a good solution" Even though "the IAEA monitors said that North Korea was not in full compliance," the official says, the Agreed Framework did cause North Korea to "cease activities that were very dangerous." The defense official saw the suspension of activities at the Yongbyon nuclear complex as temporary: "After the aid was delivered it was obvious they would violate the agreement." The defense official indicated the Clinton-administration approach amounted to appeasement of Pyongyang, saying it only sought to keep the situation "under control for now."
In 1998, the Clinton administration was faced with another major threat when North Korea shot a missile over Japan. Wendy Sherman, a former State Department counselor and adviser to Clinton and then-secretary of state Madeleine Albright, told a foreign-policy group that the administration had been taken by surprise at the development: "No one in this room likely needs reminding of the events of 1998, which many feared might take us quickly back to the 1993 nuclear crisis. ... North Korea launched a rocket that overflew Japan. While an unsuccessful launching of a satellite, our experts were stunned ... holding out the specter of North Korean long-range missile capability."
Yossef Bodansky, director of the TFTUW, was not stunned; his 1994 report foretold of the crisis: "The North Korean threat to the United States will only continue to rise simply because by the mid- to late 1990s, DPRK will be able to field the ... No Dong X ICBM, which is capable of reaching the continental United States. This fact alone will introduce a whole new dimension to the crisis in Korea."
Sherman told the United States Institute for Peace that the Clinton administration "concluded the regime was not about to collapse," and that it would have to deal with North Korean President Kim Jong-il. The TFTUW report quotes "high-level North Korean defectors," saying that the current leadership in North Korea will not give up nuclear weapons no matter how many agreements it enters into with the United States. One defector, Kang Myong-To, was quoted in the report as saying, "North Korea's nuclear development is not intended as a bargaining chip as seen by the Western world.... [Pyongyang] sees nuclear development as the only means to maintain Kim Jong-il's regime." Bodansky tells INSIGHT, "Nuclear weapons are the ultimate insurance policy of the ruling elite" in North Korea. In his new book, The High Cost of Peace, Bodansky points out that North Korea has a history of proliferating nuclear and missile technology to other nations hostile to the United States, such as Iran.
In his January 2001 State of the Union address, President Bush cited North Korea, along with Iran and Iraq, as being part of an "Axis of Evil" suggesting a deep suspicion of Pyongyang. According to the State Department official, "When Bush came into office he ordered a review" of the Agreed Framework that was completed in June 2001. But it wasn't until the summer of 2002 that the administration concluded North Korea was in violation of the Agreed Framework.…