It is possible to negotiate with North Korea. Bill Clinton did it.

 In World
Then–North Korean Leader Kim Jong-il toasts then–Secretary of State Madeleine Albright at a dinner in Pyongyang on Oct. 24, 2000.
Then–North Korean Leader Kim Jong-il toasts then–Secretary of State Madeleine Albright at a dinner in Pyongyang on Oct. 24, 2000.


There are two reasons to worry that President Trump might drag us into violent conflict with North Korea. First, his bouts of rage are intensifying (and his adversary, Kim Jong-un, isn’t an island of calm either). Second, he completely misunderstands the history of U.S.-North Korean relations, in a manner that moves him away from diplomacy toward war.

For instance, in the middle of the day on Saturday, Trump tweeted:

Presidents and their administrations have been talking to North Korea for 25 years, agreements made and massive amounts of money paid … hasn’t worked, agreements violated before the ink was dry, making fools of U.S. negotiators. Sorry, but only one thing will work!

Everything about this statement is wrong.

First, one of those agreements—President Clinton’s Agreed Framework of 1994—worked quite well, as far as it went, keeping nuclear weapons out of North Korea’s hands for eight years.

Second, that agreement collapsed in large part because we violated its terms.

Third, North Korea made its biggest advancements—successfully testing an atom bomb, a long-range ballistic missile, and possibly a hydrogen bomb—precisely in the years when U.S. presidents (first George W. Bush, then Trump) rejected diplomacy as a matter of principle.

Finally, if Trump thinks the “one thing” that “will work” to rid North Korea of its nukes is a military strike, it’s worth noting that it has never worked before—or, in any case, nobody has figured out how to make it work without sparking retaliation, which would kill hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of civilians in South Korea and possibly Japan.

Let’s parse these points one by one. In 1993, the United States and North Korea nearly came to blows. North Korea was preparing to reprocess fuel rods into weapons-grade plutonium. President Clinton warned that removing the rods from storage would be a cause for war and started mobilizing forces in the region. In part at the prodding of former President Jimmy Carter, who was sent to Pyongyang as an informal envoy, Clinton and Kim Jong-il (then the leader of North Korea and the present leader’s father) signed the Agreed Framework. Under its terms, North Korea would sign the Non-Proliferation Treaty—the international agreement preventing new states from developing nuclear weapons—keep the fuel rods locked up, and permit the International Atomic Energy Agency to keep cameras and inspectors at the nuclear reactor where the plutonium would have been processed. In exchange, the U.S. would give North Korea two light-water reactors (good for electrical power but not for making weapons); the first would be delivered within three months; upon delivery of the second, the North Koreans would ship the fuel rods out of the country. Meanwhile, the two countries would initiate diplomatic relations, including the setting up of embassies.

North Korea kept its side of the bargain; the United States did not. No light-water reactors were provided. (South Korea and Japan were supposed to pay for the reactors; they didn’t, and the U.S. Congress didn’t step in.) Nor was any progress made on diplomatic recognition.

Around 1997, the North Koreans secretly struck a deal: They would give Pakistan missile technology; Pakistan would give them centrifuges and other materials to enrich uranium—another, though slower way to build an atom bomb. Many journalists and analysts have since written that, through this end run, North Korea “cheated” on its deal with the U.S., but this isn’t accurate. The Agreed Framework covered only North Korea’s plutonium program; it said nothing about uranium enrichment. North Korea maneuvered around the agreement but didn’t violate it. (One of the U.S. negotiators on the Agreed Framework, Wendy Sherman, learned her lesson from the experience. When she later became the chief negotiator at the Iran nuclear talks, she made sure that the deal blocked Iran from all paths to a bomb.)

Even then, the North Koreans didn’t evade the Agreed Framework “before the ink was dry,” as Trump charged. They waited four years—and then took the course they did, at least in part, because they weren’t getting the benefits that the agreement promised.

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