Progress Toward Denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula

Tasneem Jamal

Ernie Regehr

The Ploughshares Monitor Spring 2007 Volume 28 Issue 1

When the six-party talks1 finally produced an agreement on 13 February 2007 to reaffirm the common goal of the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, along with setting out the specific measures to be taken toward that end, there were two primary reactions to the deal. Some welcomed it, saying it was far too long in coming and could have been reached in 2002. Others disparaged it, saying it rewarded North Korea’s bad behaviour.

It is certainly true that the cooperation of the United States could have secured the current deal much earlier. Its basic elements go back, not only to 2002, but to 1994 and are really a slightly paler version of the 1994 Framework Agreement reached by the Clinton Administration. And what the deal actually rewards is not bad behaviour, but an end to bad behaviour. This time the deal is linked specifically to the principle of “action for action”—neither side takes action on the basis of a declaration by the other, but each party acts on the basis of concrete action by the other.

The agreement requires verified evidence of action in the next 60 days. The DPRK (North Korea) must shut down production in the one declared facility it has that is capable of producing fissile materials and must allow it to be placed under the seal and verification of the International Atomic Energy Agency.2 This clear and unambiguous action is intended to produce another pretty clear action: an initial shipment of 50,000 tons of heavy fuel oil.

The 2007 agreement is partly new and mostly old because it is intended to implement the 19 September 2005 agreement, which in turn more or less updated the 1994 deal. As Charles Scanlon (2007) of the BBC put it: “Prominent members of US President George W Bush’s administration make no secret of their contempt for a previous nuclear deal signed by the Clinton administration.… Now, after years of confrontation, they have signed up to something that looks suspiciously similar – a nuclear freeze in return for economic and diplomatic incentives.”

A primary difference between 1994 and 2007 is that in 1994 it was a bilateral agreement between the United States and the DPRK, while in 2007 it is a six-party agreement, giving key neighbours China, South Korea, and Japan a stake in assuring success.

Success is far from guaranteed. It will be a challenge to procure, as required by the agreement, “a list of all its nuclear programs” from the DPRK. In 2002 the United States accused the DPRK of a clandestine uranium enrichment program. Public discussion of the matter now suggests that the North Koreans did try to acquire enrichment equipment, contrary to the provisions of the 1994 deal, but there is no evidence of the extent to which they were successful and Pyongyang continues to deny the program. Washington has never presented public evidence to back up its accusations, which in turn have become increasingly vague over time. The DPRK is unlikely to list what it says does not exist, while Washington and other skeptics are likely to reply that “the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” Ultimately, only extensive cooperation by the DPRK with IAEA inspectors can build confidence that an enrichment program does not exist.

John O’Sullivan (2007) of Washington’s Hudson Institute claims that the downfall of earlier deals was due to North Korea’s cheating and that the new deal rewards bad behaviour. In 2002, however, it was the Bush Administration that cut off the energy assistance element of the 1994 agreement amidst Washington’s aggressive accusations of an advanced but hidden weapons program (uranium enrichment). Kim Jong-il responded predictably, expelling the international inspectors and pulling out of the NPT.

O’Sullivan reflects the views of other critics when he says that the 1994 Clinton Framework Agreement with North Korea is the reason Kim Jong-il now has “more nuclear weapons.” In fact, the Clinton deal shut down North Korea’s plutonium operation, and throughout the deal’s eight-year run not an ounce of weapons material was produced there. After the Bush Administration’s dispute with Pyongyang in 2002, Pyongyang resumed production of fissile material and was at least partly successful in weaponizing it.

A number of elements of the agreement involve bilateral issues – between the DPRK and the United States, and the DPRK and Japan. Others require unspecified levels of economic, energy, and humanitarian assistance to the DPRK.

The regime that Washington had labeled part of an Axis of Evil is now to enter into bilateral talks and normalized relations with the US: “The DPRK and the US will start bilateral talks aimed at resolving pending bilateral issues and moving toward full diplomatic relations. The US will begin the process of removing the designation of the DPRK as a state-sponsor of terrorism and advance the process of terminating the application of the Trading with the Enemy Act with respect to the DPRK.”

This welcome turnaround by Washington is seen by some as a deliberate decision to go easy on the DPRK and go hard on Iran. On the other hand, the new approach to North Korea could also become a model for dealing with Iran – or would that be too much to expect?


For more information on this topic, see Ernie Regehr 2006, Responding to the North Korean bomb, Ploughshares Briefing 06-6, October,



  1. The six parties are the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North), the Republic of Korea (South), China, Russia, Japan, and the United States. The joint statement is available here.
  2. The facility in question is the Yongbyon nuclear reactor and accompanying reprocessing facility. The Joint Statement says that this facility will be “shut down and seal[ed] for the purpose of eventual abandonment.”


O’Sullivan, John. 2007. North Korea comes back for some more. National Review Online. 23 February.

Scanlon, Charles. 2007. The end of a long confrontation? BBC News, 13 February.

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