President Trump set the tone for North Korea policy last Wednesday on Twitter, as he is wont to do, declaring that America “has been talking to North Korea, and paying them extortion money, for 25 years. Talking is not the answer!” Spoiler alert: This tweet didn’t stop Kim Jong Un from appearing with a hydrogen bomb before North Korea conducted its biggest nuclear test by far.
Although Secretary of Defense James Mattis was quick to inject that “we’re never out of diplomatic solutions,” Trump’s position didn’t arrive out of the blue. It echoed comments that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson delivered back in March, as the administration’s North Korea policy review was coming to a close: “America has provided $1.3 billion in assistance to North Korea since 1995. In return, North Korea has detonated nuclear weapons, and dramatically increased its launches of ballistic missiles to threaten America and our allies.”
Let’s pause to consider just how wrong these statements are. The point isn’t to indulge in contrarianism, but to understand why policy on North Korea has been such a disaster. The reasons go beyond the almost comprehensively broken policy-making and communications of the new administration.
Indeed, the self-inflicted wounds started under George W. Bush, and it was during the Obama years that Washington enshrined its paralysis as a principle.
The record of American-North Korean diplomacy, and U.S. aid to North Korea, began in earnest in 1994, when the Clinton administration concluded a bargain called the “Agreed Framework.” North Korea mothballed its single plutonium-production reactor at Yongbyon and suspended the construction of two larger ones. Along with partners in an international consortium, the U.S. agreed to provide North Korea with new light-water reactors for electricity production. In the meantime, Washington supplied North Korea with shipments of heavy fuel oil. Humanitarian food aid started flowing in 1996.
The Agreed Framework was a product of crisis diplomacy, just four pages long. It was effective but hardly all-inclusive. It said nothing about missiles, for example. So when North Korea attempted to launch a satellite eastward over Japan in August 1998, it didn’t break the deal, but it did put it under stress. The Clinton administration’s response was to press Pyongyang for a moratorium on further space launches and missile tests. Perhaps because North Korea was still emerging from a famine at the time, it accepted the new restriction.
The next major challenge to the Agreed Framework, in the fall of 2002, was its end. Having discovered that North Korea was working on enriching uranium — an activity not explicitly forbidden in the 1994 deal — the George W. Bush administration washed its hands of the entire mess.
It’s unclear whether Pyongyang could have been squeezed into compliance with another demand, but Washington didn’t try. Instead, oil shipments and reactor-building activity ceased. North Korea responded by restarting the Yongbyon reactor and withdrew from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, making it the only country to have done so.
In the administration’s second term, some Bush officials seemed to realize the costs of standing aloof, but the administration was riven by disputes about how to proceed. On one hand, it tried to negotiate a new agreement in the “Six-Party Talks” sponsored by China. On the other hand, it tried to squeeze North Korea as hard as possible, ending food aid and using financial measures to cut the regime off from funds it held overseas. In 2006, according to a detailed report from the Congressional Research Service, U.S. aid to North Korea fell to nothing for the first time since 1994.
Pyongyang’s response was to resume testing ballistic missiles, and then to test its first nuclear device.
By the next year, it appeared that the sides had peered over the brink and decided on a rethink. In 2007, Six-Party Talks yielded two “action plans” that more or less reconstituted the Agreed Framework in a new guise, including renewed fuel oil shipments. Facilities at Yongbyon, including the plutonium-production reactor, underwent forms of “disablement” to ensure they could not be rapidly returned to use.
But in August 2008, talks stumbled over disagreements on what verification activities would be permitted at nuclear facilities. The United States provided its last shipment of oil that December. Food aid, which had resumed in 2008, concluded in 2009.
Since then, there has also been no virtually no aid of any sort. Of course, there have been another five nuclear tests, plus multiple space launches and dozens of missile tests. Talks were tentatively tried again in 2011, leading to parallel announcements of a freeze on nuclear and missile activities in February 2012. But as soon as the North Koreans announced plans for a space launch, the United States pulled back, calling Pyongyang unreliable.
There’s a lot of truth to the view that North Korea is slippery, exploiting every loophole and pushing every boundary. Facing this sort of behavior, the United States has always had a choice: to press our demands on the North Koreans, as we did after the 1998 space launch and the first nuclear test in 2006, or to give up on any chance at reining them in, as we did in October 2002 and March 2012.
The results of these choices speak for themselves. In honor of the Fourth of July this year, North Korea conducted its first test of an intercontinental ballistic missile. Last weekend, it followed up with a nuclear test with an explosive yield in the hundreds of kilotons, roughly comparable to weapons in the American, Russian, Chinese, French and British arsenals.
Nothing of the sort took place during the much-derided years of talks and aid, 1995-2002 and 2007-2008. Americans are justified in asking our leaders if this outcome was really preferable to sending oil and food to North Korea in exchange for no nuclear or missile tests. Just don’t expect any good answers from the tweeter-in-chief.
Pollack is a senior research associate at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey and editor of the Nonproliferation Review.