“The Agreed Framework froze [the North Korean nuclear] program for eight years before [the agreement] finally collapsed,” says Matthew Bunn, a nuclear policy expert at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.
Bunn says the North Koreans were guilty of cheating at various times, “but still, there was no plutonium being produced for nuclear weapons.”
That’s one important lesson learned from North Korea, Bunn says. When the US was engaged with trying to implement the terms of deal, he says, there was real progress.
“When we returned to isolation and sanctions, [the North Koreans] pulled out of the Agreed Framework. They reprocessed the plutonium, put it into nuclear weapons, pulled out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, [and] tested a nuclear bomb,” Bunn says.
Prior to the 1994 agreement, US intelligence agencies estimated that the North Koreans had possibly hidden away enough nuclear material to build one or two nuclear weapons.
“Now, they have ... a dozen nuclear weapons,” says Jeffrey Lewis, an arms control expert at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey. “Zero, one or two is not great. But — 12 is worse.”
And they might have a lot more, Lewis adds. But there are no inspectors in the country to find out.
In the end, the Agreed Framework fell apart because of a lack of trust. There was simply insufficient political will on the part of the US and North Korea.
“Both sides [were] feeling the other was cheating and that they weren’t getting what they had expected to get out of the deal and it was sort of one problem after another that led each side to conclude this deal isn’t working,” Bunn says.
The essence of the Agreed Framework was a trade-off. North Korea would freeze its nuclear program in exchange for energy assistance from the US. But both sides hedged. Washington dragged its feet on funding shipments of fuel oil and construction of a new research reactor for the north. And Pyongyang started cheating, namely, by opening up a covert pathway to nuclear weapons with a secret uranium program.
But the deal was more of a grand bargain, Lewis suggests. “The Agreed Framework was premised on the idea that North Korea would give up its nuclear weapons, and we would gradually treat them like a normal country. But they’re not a normal country. And nuclear weapons weren’t the only problem we had with them,” he says.