A Comprehensive Approach to North Korea

By Armitage, Richard L. | Strategic Forum, March 1999 | Go to article overview

A Comprehensive Approach to North Korea


Armitage, Richard L., Strategic Forum


Since the Agreed Framework (AF) was signed by the United States and North Korea on October 21, 1994, the security situation on the Korean peninsula and in Northeast Asia has changed qualitatively for the worse. The discovery last year of a suspect North Korean nuclear site and the August 31 launch of a Taepo Dong missile have combined to raise fundamental questions about Pyongyang's intentions, its commitment to the agreement, and the possibility of North-South reconciliation. These developments also raise profound questions about the sustainability of current U.S. policy toward the Korean peninsula.

The Agreed Framework successfully addressed a specific security problem--North Korea's plutonium production at the Yongbyon and Taechon facilities. Under the agreement, operations were frozen at the two facilities and Pyongyang was prevented from obtaining fissile material from the fuel rods of the reactor core for five to six nuclear weapons. Had the program continued unabated, North Korea might have been able to produce enough fissile material for a substantial nuclear arsenal. Arguably, the Agreed Framework was a necessary but not sufficient response to the multiple security challenges posed by North Korea. Indeed, the development of the Taepo Dong missile poses an expanding security threat to Northeast Asia and, increasingly, to the Middle East, Europe, and even the United States itself.

Changing Assumptions

Experience in dealing with Pyongyang since the Agreed Framework was signed challenges several critical assumptions on which public and Congressional support for U.S. policy has been based.

* The first is the assumption made by some senior administration officials that the Agreed Framework had ended North Korea's nuclear program.

* The second is that North Korea is a failed state on the verge of collapse and that a "hard landing"--collapse perhaps accompanied by aggression--should be avoided.

* The third is that the Agreed Framework would induce North Korea to open up to the outside world, initiate a gradual process of North-South reconciliation, and lead to real reform and a "soft landing."

These assumptions suggested that, even if little progress was made on other political/security issues, the Agreed Framework was an effective, time-buying strategy. At a minimum, North Korea's conventional capabilities would continue to degrade (as they have). Optimally, the North would solve our problems by ultimately reconciling or uniting with the South. These assumptions are now open to question.

Reality Check

The disclosure of at least one suspect site--on which construction began prior to the agreement--reinforces the possibility that Pyongyang has frozen only a portion of its nuclear program or is seeking to develop a covert nuclear weapons program. The Agreed Framework was structured to become stronger over time in constraining the North's nuclear weapons capability. This meant deferring the requirement for the North Korean nuclear program to come into full compliance with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) full-scope safeguards until roughly 2002-03. In effect, the agreement accepted the possibility that North Korea might have one or two nuclear devices. Since 1994, it is also possible that Pyongyang could have acquired additional nuclear weapons technology and/or fissile material from external sources.

Moreover, the core assumption of imminent collapse is seriously flawed. Despite severe hardships, there are no signs of regime-threatening social or political unrest, or military disaffection. As underscored in its 50th anniversary celebration last year, the North Korean regime appears to have consolidated itself under Kim Jong Il.

There are also no signs that the regime is contemplating any radical market-oriented reforms. Instead, forced by necessity, it is experimenting at the margins with modest reform to alleviate food shortages at the local level and gain hard currency. …

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