Joshua PollackDenuclearization of the Korean Peninsula: Reviewing the Precedents

While we’re waiting for the Singapore Summit to produce whatever it produces, it may be useful to ponder the record. There’s now more than a quarter-century’s worth of statements by North Korea and various other parties that have addressed Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions in one way or another. Taken together, they offer a yardstick for Singapore.

[UPDATE: Here’s the Joint Statement. I did a compare-and-contrast for the LA Times. Read it here.]

Don’t worry! It’s less dry than it seems. And besides, once you’ve read this, you’ll be better prepared for the summit than the President of the United States.

The story starts in the early 1990s. North Korea had been operating a small reactor well-suited for making weapons-grade plutonium since 1986. It was building two newer, larger ones, as well as a full-scale facility for reprocessing spent fuel, which is how you separate out the plutonium for making weapons.

This statement introduced “denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula” (hereafter just DOTKP) into the international lexicon. It has three major features.

First, as the name suggests, it commits both sides equally not to build or receive nuclear weapons—a nod to the presence of U.S. nuclear weapons in South Korea from 1958 until 1991. Their removal from the country enabled Seoul to sign the Joint Declaration, but North Korea has never acknowledged their departure, the better to justify its own nuclear pursuits.

Second, it commits both sides not to possess “nuclear reprocessing and uranium enrichment facilities.” At the time of signing, North Korea was putting the finishing touches on its full-scale reprocessing plant, which it chose to call a mere “radiochemical laboratory.” Enrichment would come later.

Third, it commits the two Koreas to establish a Joint Nuclear Control Commission that was to have conducted inspections at agreed-upon locations on both sides. This approach to verification is both symmetrical and controlled, which to my eye betrays Pyongyang’s ambivalence toward the safeguards inspections of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

(The only precedent for a bilateral nuclear inspections regime of which I am aware is the Brazilian-Argentine Agency for Accounting and Control of Nuclear Materials, better known as ABACC. Established in 1991, ABACC operates in close coordination with the IAEA, not as a substitute for it.)

Seriously, don’t bother reading this. It’s a “comprehensive safeguards agreement,” or CSA, a boilerplate legal text that provides for periodic IAEA access to declared nuclear facilities. It also contains a go-anywhere “Special Inspection” power, which had never been employed at the time of signing. [Former IAEA legal department director Laura Rockwood, now the director of VCDNP, writes in to say that that’s not exactly right – the SI power had been used rarely, and never at an undeclared site.] (Art. 18, if you’re really, really curious.) North Korea was supposed to have concluded this agreement after joining the NPT in 1985, but held out until a week and a half after signing the Joint Declaration on DOTKP.

Did you notice that bit about the never-used [at an undeclared site] Special Inspection power? Well, in late February 1993, the IAEA invoked it for the first time [at an undeclared site] anywhere. (The reasons are discussed here, if you’re curious.) The North Koreans told the IAEA to stuff it, saying that they were attempting to pry into military facilities at the behest of the USA. Withdrawing from the NPT meant that the CSA—including the Special Inspection authority—would no longer be in force.

This one is brief, little recalled, and quite important—the first bilateral U.S.-North Korean agreement of which I’m aware. It paused the “effectuation” of North Korea’s NPT withdrawal, paving the way to continued negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang. To reach that point, it included “assurances against the use of force,” a commitment to “Peace and security in a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula,” and “Support for the peaceful reunification of Korea.”  Does any of this sound familiar? This was almost precisely 25 years ago.

In the meantime, the North Koreans continued to stiff-arm the IAEA, resigning their membership in the organization in mid-1994 and claiming that this move invalidated their CSA. The IAEA disagreed, but wasn’t in a position to force the matter.

This document was the fruit of the process announced in June 1993. It committed the U.S. to supply North Korea with up-to-date light-water reactors for generating electricity, replacing the gas-graphite reactor technology the North Koreans had adopted for themselves, and to supply heavy fuel oil in the meantime. In exchange, North Korea agreed to freeze its reactor and associated facilities and subject them to IAEA verification. It also agreed to return to compliance with its CSA once the new reactors were nearing completion.

Furthermore, both sides agreed to move in steps toward “full normalization of political and economic relations,” and to “work together for peace and security on a nuclear-free Korean peninsula.” That’s 24 years ago now.

This short text was the outcome of the first inter-Korean summit. North Korea’s nuclear facilities were frozen at the time in keeping with the Agreed Framework, which probably explains why this joint declaration is silent on nuclear issues.

This document was issued after Kim Jong Il’s personal envoy traveled to the White House to meet with President Clinton. It was notable for a new North Korean commitment to suspend launches of “long-range missiles of any kind while talks on the missile issue continue,” an assurance that would stand until July 2006. Here, “of any kind” was implicitly understood to include space launchers.

Nodding to the first inter-Korean summit, the joint communique tentatively identifies measures for improving relations, including possible ways to “reduce tension on the Korean Peninsula and formally end the Korean War by replacing the 1953 Armistice Agreement with permanent peace arrangements.” It declares that neither side had “hostile intent” toward the other and floated the idea of expert exchanges on trade. It also expressed American support for the South-North Joint Declaration. This was almost 18 years ago.

After discovering evidence of a North Korean uranium enrichment program, the U.S. walked away from the Agreed Framework in October 2002. North Korea “effectuated” its withdrawal from the NPT in January 2003. In August 2003, China began hosting multinational meetings in Beijing in an effort to put the process back on track. In addition to the United States and North Korea, South Korea, Japan, and Russia had seats at the table.

Two years later, the fourth round of the Six-Party Talks produced a joint statement proclaiming the shared goal of “the verifiable denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula in a peaceful manner.” The most important sentence, from the U.S. perspective, was this: “The D.P.R.K. committed to abandoning all nuclear weapons and existing nuclear programs and returning, at an early date, to the Treaty on the Nonproliferation of Nuclear Weapons and to IAEA safeguards.” Now-familiar language on security assurances, diplomatic normalization, economic cooperation, and negotiating a “permanent peace regime on the Korean Peninsula” all made appearances, too. Over a dozen years ago.

The road to implementation of the joint statement was bumpy. (Let’s just say that Singapore isn’t John Bolton’s first goat rodeo.) The list of “initial actions” issued a year-and-a-half later— after North Korea’s first nuclear test, among other developments—includes a variety of steps and the establishment of five working groups on themes like—can you guess?—DOTKP, normalization of relations, energy and economic cooperation, and regional peace and security.

Anyone remember “disablement”? Such a fun word. Anyway, the major headings are DOTKP, normalization of relations, and economic and energy assistance. Over a decade ago now. But it was all downhill from there.

This relatively lengthy declaration was the output of the second inter-Korean summit. It called for a “permanent peace regime” and inter-Korean economic cooperation. It also endorsed the September 19, 2005 and February 13, 2007 Six-Party Talks agreements. One supposes that it would have endorsed the October 3, 2007 agreement as well, but there probably wasn’t an opportunity to update the text of the declaration in time for that.

(The State Department web server is having some hiccups at the moment, so here’s the cached version.)

Taken together, these readouts are the so-called “Leap Day Deal.” It didn’t fare well, and the mechanism of issuing parallel readouts without an agreed text will hopefully not be seen again too soon. Whatever we call it, it involved a “moratorium” on various activities (a “freeze,” to use the language of the Agreed Framework, with similar verification arrangements), plus food aid, assurances of “no hostile intent,” and commitment to “peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula,” among other matters. That’s over six years ago now.

North Korea tested its third nuclear device in February 2013, right on the eve of the State of the Union address. Kim Jong Un might have calculated that this action would give President Obama pause. It didn’t; the U.S. went right back to the UN Security Council to secure a fresh round of international condemnation and sanctions.

Kim’s response was to double down, declaring “a new strategic line on carrying out economic construction and building nuclear armed forces simultaneously.” It’s worth looking back at the text again, especially this part:

The nuclear weapons of Songun [military-first] Korea are not goods for getting U.S. dollars and they are neither a political bargaining chip nor a thing for economic dealings to be presented to the place of dialogue or be put on the table of negotiations aimed at forcing the DPRK to disarm itself.

The DPRK’s nuclear armed forces represent the nation’s life which can never be abandoned as long as the imperialists and nuclear threats exist on earth. They are a treasure of a reunified country which can never be traded with billions of dollars.

Only when the nuclear shield for self-defence is held fast, will it be possible to shatter the U.S. imperialists’ ambition for annexing the Korean Peninsula by force and making the Korean people modern slaves, firmly defend our ideology, social system and all other socialist treasures won at the cost of blood and safeguard the nation’s right to existence and its time-honored history and brilliant culture.

When the party’s new line is thoroughly carried out, the DPRK will emerge as a great political, military and socialist economic power and a highly-civilized country which steers the era of independence.


Fast-forward five years. Three quarters of North Korea’s missile tests have taken place since April 2013. So have half of its nuclear tests, culminating in what appears to have been its first fully successfully hydrogen-bomb test. Here’s what Kim Jong Un had to say about all that:

Saying that the overall situation is rapidly changing in favor of the Korean revolution thanks to the DPRK’s proactive action and efforts after the declaration of completing the state nuclear force last year, he informed that a fresh climate of détente and peace is being created on the Korean peninsula and the region and dramatic changes are being made in the international political landscape.

He said that the miraculous victory of having perfectly accomplished the great historic cause of building the state nuclear force in a short span of less than five years is the great victory of the WPK’s line of simultaneously pushing forward the economic construction and the building of a nuclear force and, at the same time, a brilliant victory that could be won only by the heroic Korean people.

He referred to the progress made in the economic construction along with the all-party, all-state and all-people struggle for implementing the above-said line.

He declared with pride that the historic tasks under the strategic line of simultaneously developing the two fronts set forth at the March 2013 Plenary Meeting of the Central Committee of the Party were successfully carried out.

He said that the victory of the WPK’s line was won and thus the struggle of the Korean people who worked hard with their belt tightened to acquire a powerful treasured sword [nuclear arsenal] for defending peace was successfully concluded and the firm guarantee by which our descendents [sic] can enjoy the most dignified and happiest life in the world was provided.

(The Korean text also includes a comment about North Korea to the effect of, it has been rebuilt as a world-class nuclear power.)

This declaration, the result of the third inter-Korean summit, has a great deal in common with the 2007 declaration. It contains some new verbal twists on old themes, such as establishing “a permanent and solid peace regime on the Korean Peninsula.” It also proclaims “the common goal of realizing, through complete denuclearization, a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula.”

Let’s conclude with one of a handful of public statements from the North Korean foreign ministry in recent weeks. I’ve picked this one because it helps to clarify the North Korean outlook on what DOTKP might mean, and what it might not. Here are the last several paragraphs, which deserved more attention than they received at the time:

We have already stated our intention for denuclearization of the Korean peninsula and made clear on several occasions that precondition for denuclearization is to put an end to anti-DPRK hostile policy and nuclear threats and blackmail of the United States.

But now, the U.S. is miscalculating the magnanimity and broad-minded initiatives of the DPRK as signs of weakness and trying to embellish and advertise as if these are the product of its sanctions and pressure.

The U.S. is trumpeting as if it would offer economic compensation and benefit in case we abandon nuke. But we have never had any expectation of U.S. support in carrying out our economic construction and will not at all make such a deal in future, either.

It is a ridiculous comedy to see that the Trump administration, claiming to take a different road from the previous administrations, still clings to the outdated policy on the DPRK – a policy pursued by previous administrations at the time when the DPRK was at the stage of nuclear development.

If President Trump follows in the footsteps of his predecessors, he will be recorded as more tragic and unsuccessful president than his predecessors, far from his initial ambition to make unprecedented success.

If the Trump administration takes an approach to the DPRK-U.S. summit with sincerity for improved DPRK-U.S. relations, it will receive a deserved response from us. However, if the U.S. is trying to drive us into a corner to force our unilateral nuclear abandonment, we will no longer be interested in such dialogue and cannot but reconsider our proceeding to the DPRK-U.S. summit.

There you have it—the highlights of the documentary record, a handy yardstick by which to measure what emerges from Singapore.


  1. Laura (History)

    Thanks for a great and much-needed summary of the DPRK history. Only one minor correction – the IAEA had indeed carried out special inspections prior to the DPRK, but definitely rarely, and only at declared locations.

    • Joshua Pollack (History)

      Thanks, Laura! I’ve worked that in.

  2. Jonathan McDowell (@planet4589) (History)

    By “implicitly understood to include space launchers” (2000 communique), implicitly understood by who? I’m not sure I’ve seen evidence that it was ever implicitly understood by the North Koreans

    • Joshua Pollack (History)

      After the 2006 TD-2 launch, the NKs reminded us specifically that the moratorium was no longer in effect.