Shadow of the Past: What the past U.S. dealings with North Korea tell us about how to deal with North Korea today

Many have claimed that the Agreed Framework, signed in 1994 by the United States and DPRK,  was a failure. Richard Perle denounced it saying it constituted ‘blackmail’ and draw from it the conclusion that North Korea cannot be trusted. As such, critics refute the idea that negotiating with North Korea in 2017 will produce a different outcome. Even less critical analyses in the papers frame the failure as collapsing after ‘accusations that Pyongyang was cheating.’  Such analysis perpetuates the misconception that talks collapsed after actions were taken by the DPRK to enrich uranium, ignoring the failure in many instances of the U.S. to live up to the agreement.

Instead, I propose that the Agreed Framework does offer valuable insights into negotiating with North Korea, chiefly that diplomacy can lead to peaceful developments with North Korea. Despite its presentation as a fringe view by certain commentators, this happens to be the conclusion of historians and commentators as is demonstrated below:

“Progress can be achieved, as seen in the Agreed Framework of October 1994, the Perry Process peaking in September 1999, or the Joint Statement of September 2005—each a compromise requiring the North to stop some destabilizing or threatening action in return for incentives—but such opening moves require intensive follow-up.” (Rozman, p.2)

Importantly Rozman notes that the success of diplomacy in these situations rests upon the willingness to pursue negotiations and thus commit to promises made.

Crucial Lessons To Be Drawn from 1994

The most important lesson that can be drawn from 1994 is that the United States must show religious commitment to the terms of any treaty with the North Koreans. To be clear, the United States did not renege on the ‘hard’ substantive clauses of the agreement. However, the level of commitment to the political and economic opening, as well as to the delivery of heavy fuel, has been questioned. This is to say that they missed deadlines and did not show enthusiasm in cooperating with the regime.

This assessment has been supported by those who helped negotiate and who observed the process. For instance, Robert Gallucci chief negotiator with North Korea states:

 ‘And did we meet every delivery schedule on the day? No. Did we generally meet the schedule, and were we generally providing what we said we’d provide? Yes. So in terms of the hard performance under the framework, both sides were doing it.’

Such testimony is supported by William Perry, U.S. Secretary of Defense, who in response to the question of whether the United States held to the agreement, responded ‘…Not really’

What is clear is that though both sides kept to the most important clauses there was never the push needed to make the Agreement last by putting the effort in delivering on other issues. In addition, they did not develop a long term framework for further negotiation.

Gallucci also notes that the Agreement was not fully understood and failed to meet expectations:

‘Second, with respect to the economic opening, lifting of sanctions, that’s the area in which they didn’t get the pay-off that they thought they’d get. But nothing that you could nail and say, this is what the framework says we didn’t perform. We were not as forthcoming as they might have liked. This is not what I would call, to use the current language, a “material breach.” A phrase which by the way, doesn’t apply to the framework which isn’t even a legal agreement.’

As such, even if the main part of the agreement is kept to, a future agreement must clarify the extent of U.S. concessions and then the U.S. must hold to them.

Of course, others contest this narrative, emphasizing the later reneging by North Korea in enriching uranium. Thomas Hubbard, Ambassador to South Korea makes such a case. In response to being asked as to why the Agreement failed he states:

‘Because the North Koreans apparently still have not given up their hopes and their wish to produce nuclear weapons. The very premise of the Agreed Framework was that over a period of time and through a series of steps and in exchange for some security assurances, as well as economic assistance, that North Korea would give up its nuclear weapons program. We were able to monitor their program, their original plutonium-based program at Yongbyon. And that did remain frozen.’

Before dismissing the lessons already drawn from 1994 in favor of this narrative, certain considerations must be made. The United States confronted North Korea over its enrichment of uranium in August 2002. However, the United States had not only labeled North Korea as part of the ‘axis of evil’, but it had also failed to install the Light Water Reactors and money had been slow or insufficient after the Republicans gained control of Congress in 1996.

The dishonesty of his argument is further revealed by Donald Gregg’s testimony as former U.S. Ambassador to South Korea and National Security Adviser to George Bush:

‘… I think there was some foot dragging on our part. I think that the oil shipments came late and there was a real lack of enthusiasm for the issue of getting them off the terrorist list. I wouldn’t say we reneged. But it was not implemented with any great enthusiasm.’

Lim Dong Won, South Korean Presidential Envoy to North Korea, further points out that it wasn’t in the original agreement, North Korea cheated but did not violate the Agreed Framework.

Another lesson can be drawn from this: that any future agreement must cover all bases and be specific so as to force all parties to be sincere from the beginning.

The final lesson that should be drawn from 1994 is the danger of extreme positions in the Congress. For instance, Senator McCain accused the President of treason and ‘appeasement’. This raises problems because it prevents moderate or realist political positions necessary for compromise and can even encourage brinksmanship from a president. The problem is compounded by the fact that any long term agreement, for prosperity’s sake, will require ratification as a treaty. Similar parallels can be drawn with the hostility from the G.O.P. to the JCPOA negotiated by Obama.

Future negotiations will have to tread carefully and be willing to defend compromise in the face of vitriol and rhetoric. In some ways Trump may be better suited to such a task; given his zero-sum view of the world and his celebration of military strikes (see Syria and Afghanistan) he cannot be accused of being weak.

The problems of comparison

There are of course certain problems with trying to apply these lessons. To begin with North Korea today is not the North Korea of 1994. Kim Jong-Un has already proved to be ruthless in purging 140 Party Members and his philosophy of ‘Byungjin’ requires the pursuit of nuclear weapons in order to ensure the country’s and regime’s survival. In addition, 1994 saw the North Koreans suffer a famine caused by the destruction of 1.5 million tonnes of grain; as a result, there was an urgent need for North Korea to find a means to relax economic sanctions.

Equally, in the United States Trump is no Clinton. I do not suggest Clinton was an entirely rational or diplomatic leader (see Operation Infinite Reach in 1998), though he was certainly more diplomatic and calm than Trump has so far been (note his ‘fire and fury’ threat).


Overall, there are reasons for hope that diplomats, statesman, and policymakers will reconsider 1994. Firstly, North Korea once again faces starvation, as brought on by drought and may need to return to the table. Secondly, Tillerson and Matits have both made clear that they wish to pursue diplomacy first. Further to, this constitutes a recognition that sanctions won’t be enough and thus other avenues must be pursued. This aligns with the conclusions of William Perry’s 1999 report, following on from the events of 1994, showing some acknowledgment of long established facts


This provides interviews with those involved in the negotiations and critics:

Review of United States’ Policy Toward North Korea: Findings and Recommendations, Dr. William J. Perry:

Strategic Thinking About the Korean Nuclear Crisis: Four Parties Caught between the North Korea and United States (2007), Palgrave MacMillan, Gilbert Rozman





Blair and Iraq

In an interview with Alister Campbell for GQ, Tony Blair interview with Alister Campbell for GQ, Tony Blair admits that his government did not have a grasp of the complex sectarian ethnic and religious divides in the country’s history.

In educating Mr. Blair this blog can recommend Barr’s Setting The Desert On Fire (2006) and Hulsman’s To Begin the World Over Again: Lawrence of Arabia from Damascus to Baghdad (2009) which cover some of the failures the British encountered the last time it attempted quasi-nation building in the region. 

In recognizing that he may not have time for such reading, as I am sure he is a busy man, he can alternatively watch Friedman’s analysis on the roots of sectarianism.

The anti-populist?

In 2016 populism became the favorite word of the press, the political establishment and the middle class supporters of liberalism. Their perception of the world is based upon the premise that the liberal world order is under threat from the popular backlash against immigration and free trade. Whilst this is often not a fair characterization of the ‘populists’ demands, it carries as an accepted theory in the broadcasting world at least.

The history of populism, whether it be present in Trump’s election or the vote to leave the European Union, is varied and seems to be distilled into three categories. Firstly, the right wing, ‘chauvinistic’ populism, apparent today in Trump but, as Prof. Ferguson notes, is traced back to Daniel Kearney. Secondly, the left wing form of populism present in Corbyn and Sanders in the UK and USA: its goals differ significantly since whilst both forms tend to proclaim protectionism, left wing populism often downplays social issues particularly immigration. A final form of populism, its most extreme, is surely what has been in play in parts of Eastern Europe. The rise of the Law and Justice Party in Poland as been built upon the precepts of a corrupt, political elite imposing social liberalism on the masses. However, its methods to counter act such change are fundamentally illiberal and not conservative.

Whilst the characterization, debates about the history of populism and fortune telling are interesting, perhaps those worried about the rise of populism could turn to the history of the anti-populist. If the populist is the demagogue who gives the people what they want, then the anti-populist disagrees and not only finds larger causal issues for the majorities’ issues, but also attacks their innocence as the oppressed stakeholder. The effective anti-populist is also aware of the role of the political establishment, not only in dealing with populism but in causing it to rise in the first place. Thus the effective anti-populist must adopt pragmatism and be willing to view the world as it is, not how they would like to see it.

The example that clearly comes to mind is Cato the Younger in his speech against Caesar during the Second Catiline Conspiracy. Whilst the speech does not deal with the issue of populism, only the punishment of its conspirators, the content and principles provide an interesting guide to the stabilization of politics.

His credentials are established by his immediate attack on the citizens of Rome saying, ‘I have complained about the extravagance and greed of our citizens.’ As Sallust has previously elaborated on, much of Catiline’s initial populism comes from the greed of Romans, both upper and lower class, meaning that there is substantial disenfranchisement and anger with the political classes. This theme of the failure of virtue is one that Sallust has elaborated on in his quasi-prologue to the Catiline Conspiracy but forms an interesting filter through which to understand how unrest can happen. This is partially because it affects both the elite and the lower orders thus meaning social and political cohesion suffers.

Cato goes on to elaborate that instead of the traditional virtuous wealth the Romans have ‘private wealth’. Thus Cato provides the example of the “good” anti-populist as he criticizes the elites in society as well. This could well lead to criticism of my characterization. However, the effective anti-populist must surely deal with the legitimate failings of the elite. Firstly, so as to provide a compromise with the disenfranchised but also so as to prevent future rises in populism. Furthermore, Cato promotes his reasoning through use of reason to persuade that his policy is that which is rooted in the tradition. Citing the sacrifices Torquatus he draws attention to the fact that the elites must also change since what made Rome good once, is severely lacking in the methods of the politicians.

Cato’s speech thus provides two critiques of the current political status quo which provide important lessons to times of chaos. His contention, in my view, is that the whole of society has failed. Both the upper and lower echelons have failed morally and given into selfish vices. Secondly, he argues not only that politicians have failed but that they cannot even agree on the correct way of dealing with the populists.

Applying such lessons to the world of 2017 will be a momentous task. Primarily the contradictions inherent in pursuance of policy that would please these two aspects would make it hard for a politician or party to ever enter office. The recognition of the failure of the elites and their failure in methods of dealing with populism, thus the small justification in populist outbursts, would make one unpopular with the political class who still have a hegemony on funding and infrastructure. Secondly, the condemnation of the expectations of populists inevitably leads one to fall out with the masses.

No doubt this will be a hard task for those who control the centre of the Conservative and Labour parties in Britain. Self awareness will take some time to come. However, the outlook Cato provides on the complex issues surrounding unrest and populism is still worth adopting when considering the current situation: some woes are justified, though some expectations are false and the elites have some accountability in this. In 2017, we can at least hope for some adoption of a nuanced view of politics.


Further reading and works cited

W. Batstone, William Sallust: Catiline’s Conspiracy Oxford University Press, 2010

Applebaum, Anne In Poland, a preview of what Trump could do to America Washington Post, Sept. 19th 2016

Ferguson, Niall Is the US having a populist moment? Boston Globe, Feb. 29th 2016