In the summer of 1994 the Clinton administration faced the gravest crisis on the Korean peninsula since the signing of the armistice agreement in 1953. The genesis of the crisis had come in 1992 when Pyongyang concluded an agreement accepting the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) nuclear safeguards in accordance with the provisions of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). Subsequent IAEA inspections discovered inconsistencies between Pyongyang’s initial declaration regarding its nuclear program and IAEA findings. Pyongyang then threatened to withdraw from the NPT triggering an international crisis.
Secretary of Defense William Perry recalled in his 1999 memoir Preventive Defense that by June of 1994 “We knew we were poised on the brink of a war that might involve weapons of mass destruction.” The United States had, according to press reports, drawn up plans for an air strike on Pyongyang’s Yongbyon nuclear reactor. The surgical strike was intended to prevent the re-processing of plutonium from the reactor’s spent fuel rods which could be used in the construction of an estimated half dozen nuclear weapons. A 1999 CNN report on the crisis quoted Pentagon sources as estimating that such a strike would have led to all-out war with as many as one million casualties.
Then a last-minute phone call from former President Jimmy Carter, on a private North Korean visit, to chief U.S. negotiator Robert Gallucci in Washington reported a breakthrough in private discussions with aging North Korean Great Leader Kim Il-sung. Carter was quoted as telling CNN on June 15, 1994 that “I look upon this, this commitment by Kim Il-sung as being very important.” (Kim would die of heart failure in less than a month, but the imprimatur of North Korea’s god-like founder on a proposed nuclear agreement as one of his last official actions assured its universal acceptance in Pyongyang.)
The subsequent agreement, known as the Agreed Framework, signed on October 21, 1994, called for the freezing of Pyongyang’s reprocessing of plutonium from spent fuel rods at North Korea’s Soviet era graphite 5-megawatt nuclear reactor in exchange for the provision of heavy fuel oil and the construction of two light-water reactors to meet North Korean energy needs. The United States and North Korea also pledged to move toward normalization of political and economic relations.
A key flaw in the Agreed Framework, apparent from the beginning, was the stipulation that the estimated 16,000 spent fuel rods would be stored on-site in North Korea until all provisions of the agreement were finalized. Thus, when the Agreed Framework broke down a decade later, Pyongyang still had access to the plutonium in these spent fuel rods. The only airtight guarantee that North Korea would not ultimately make use of the reprocessed plutonium from its Yongbyon facility for its weapons program would have been to remove the spent fuel rods from North Korea and to have international authorities dispose of them.
There was an even more important incentive for Pyongyang to reach the 1994 decision to freeze its plutonium reprocessing activities than either Great Leader Kim Il-sung’s imprimatur or its continued access to the spent fuel rods. The North Koreans knew by the time the Agreed Framework was inked in October 1994 that they had a second, surreptitious pathway for the acquisition of nuclear weapons. Pyongyang thus never had any intention of adhering to the stated goal of “peace and security on a nuclear-free Korean peninsula.” Pyongyang intended from day one to go forward with the continued acquisition of weapons of mass destruction via a second route.
BBC security correspondent Gordon Corera’s 2006 book Shopping for Bombs: Nuclear Proliferation, Global Insecurity and the Rise and Fall of the A. Q. Khan Network provides details on how Pakistani scientist A.Q. Khan and his arms network provided Pyongyang with the centrifuges and technology necessary for producing nuclear weapons. In an October 12, 2006, interview about his book with the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Corera was asked what motivated Khan, the father of the “Islamic bomb,” into selling nuclear secrets to “the distinctly non-Islamic state of North Korea?” Corera responded, “It actually looks like he was doing a trade. He was trading North Korean missile technology for Pakistani centrifuge nuclear technology. Partly . . . to bolster his own position in Pakistan by being able to come back and say look at this missile technology I’m delivering to our country.”