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Going Critical: The First North Korean Nuclear Crisis

Purchase “Going Critical: The First North Korean Nuclear Crisis”

Secretary of State for East Asia and Pacific Affairs James Kelly landed in Pyongyang. Soon he would face the North Koreans across the negotiating table, the first senior U.S. official to do so since the inauguration of President George W. Bush in January 2001. Kelly carried a brief containing a serious indictment: American intelligence had discovered a secret program to produce highly enriched uranium for nuclear weapons, quite apart from the plutonium production program that the Agreed Framework had frozen. Kelly’s visit triggered a cascade of events resulting in the collapse of the accord and a new crisis over North Korea’s nuclear program.

What transformed the hope of October 1994 into the disappointment of October 2002? The Agreed Framework did not end the ups and downs char­acteristic of North-South relations since the 1953 armistice. Cold war–like flare-ups continued—such as the intrusion of a South Korean spy submarine in South Korean waters in 1996 and the sinking of a North Korean naval ves­sel in a short, sharp exchange in 2002. At the same time, President Kim Dae Jung initiated a “Sunshine Policy” promising a historic opening to the North and became the first South Korean leader to visit North Korea. Each develop-ment—good or bad—can be viewed prismatically, broken into wavelengths that shed different colors depending on the angle of observation. For exam­ple, the same Sunshine Policy that refracted into the inspiring image of Kim Dae Jung traveling to Oslo to receive the Nobel Peace Prize, upon further refraction generated the sordid image of a summit facilitated through hun­dreds of millions of dollars passed secretly to the Kim Jong Il regime.

The same could be said for implementation of the Geneva accord. Through most of the 1990s, heavy fuel oil flowed and the new reactor project moved forward. But funding shortages sometimes slowed the movement of oil to an ooze. The reactor project also fell behind schedule, a victim of slowdowns caused by North Korea’s continued hostility toward Seoul, South Korea’s frosty relationship with Pyongyang before the election of Kim Dae Jung, and other impediments that sprung up with regularity.

Despite the problems—missile tests, famine in the North, incidents at sea—on balance the Agreed Framework contributed to stability in Korea and in Asia throughout that period. The Yongbyon facilities remained frozen under seals and under continuous surveillance by inspectors from the Inter­national Atomic Energy Agency. No more plutonium was being generated or separated in North Korea. The eventual dismantlement of these facilities remained a plausible if distant prospect.

As is now known, North Korea was actually playing a far different game, one utterly incompatible with the Agreed Framework and all it represented. It began (perhaps only Kim Jong Il knows the precise moment) when the regime ramped up its secret program to produce highly enriched uranium. Though less urgent—since Pyongyang’s plutonium production program was much more advanced—an enriched-uranium weapon program was more danger­ous, in that the technology required to assemble a working uranium bomb was far easier to master than that required to build a plutonium bomb.

The decade following the signing of the 1994 accord traced a complete arc—from crisis to concord and back again to crisis. Although this book has concentrated on the first North Korean nuclear crisis, it would be incomplete if it failed to draw lessons from that experience and from the benefits of hind­sight in order to shed light on current events. This requires a brief review of events since 1994, followed by some reflections on the past and how they may apply to the future.

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