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Nuclear strategy and proliferation after the Cold War

On 4 November 1994, the United Nations Security Council formally endorsed the so-called “Agreed Framework,” a nuclear accord discussed for years but negotiated intensively from September to October 1994 between the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK, North Korea) and the United States.

The framework had four main parts:

  1. The nations would cooperate to replace the DPRK’s graphite-moderated reactors and related facilities with light-water reactor (LWR) power plants.
  2. The United States and DPRK would work toward full normalization of political and economic relations.
  3. The United States and the DPRK pledged to seek peace and security on a nuclear-free Korean peninsula.
  4. The United States and the DPRK agreed to work together to strengthen the international nuclear non proliferation regime.

In light of recent events these are eye-catching promises. They were then as well. As The New York Times reported, the agreement was a remarkable event. The four key tenets of the accord, even to the jaundiced eye of a seasoned diplomat seemed symbolic of the post-Cold War era. However, according to the Times, the announcement of the agreement “kept secret many details of how the accord will be put into effect.”

It is unclear whether the momentum for the framework continued despite the secrecy or because of details hidden from view. Within two weeks of the agreement, the Security Council took up the cause and numerous nations were on board (many not yet privy to some more secret aspects of the Framework). The UN proclaimed support of North Korea’s decision to freeze its current nuclear program and to comply with a safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Yet perhaps such international approbation did more harm than good, because North Koreans objected to how the agreement was playing out symbolically. The UN statement seemed to emphasize only North Korea’s responsibilities under the framework agreement and not the reciprocal obligations of the United States and of South Korea.

North Korean leaders aimed for their nation to be perceived not as a rogue state being brought into line, but as holding the United States and its allies accountable in an agreement with mutual responsibilities. The agreement itself, as events unfolded, seemed promising enough. Within another two weeks, by 11 November 1994, the IAEA arranged to send inspectors, and soon thereafter United States and North Korean scientists and policymakers announced preliminary protocols regarding storage issues for over 8,000 spent fuel rods. South Korean diplomats pushed back, seeking security guarantees, but eventually bought into the agreement. By 18 November, according to Reuters, the United States, South Korea, and Japan agreed to lead an international consortium to finance more than $4 billion in construction and maintenance costs for light-water reactors in North Korea.

To many observers, the Agreed Framework of 1994 augured a new chapter in non-proliferation, tailored to the post-Cold War era. Despite difficult negotiations regarding the compromise framework and the international consortium, it seemed to be a real success.

Why such a promising framework collapsed bears further scrutiny and has profound implications for the future.

North Korea: By Roman Harak. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

The end of the Cold War did not eliminate the challenges of nuclear weapons and strategy. Far from it. Recognizing the new nuclear and strategic landscape, the Clinton Administration tried to align nuclear policy with new circumstances. “A wide-ranging and thorough bottom-up study conducted by the Pentagon during 1993,” writes Joseph Siracusa, “identified a number of key threats to United States national security. Foremost among them was the increased threat of proliferation of nuclear weapons and other weapons of mass destruction.”

Clinton’s strategy for dealing with obvious threats, such as a resurgent Russia and the need to keep track of former Soviet stockpiles, materials, technologies, and experts, was to pursue new agreements that addressed the concerns of individual states, while strengthening the existing Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT). Just months after the agreement with North Korea, for example, the United States, Britain, and Russia worked with Ukraine to send its inherited Soviet-era nuclear arsenal to Russia, persuading it to join the NPT in return for security guarantees. It seemed that new accords, adjusted to the new era, could be reached to foreclose future proliferation. Notorious cases of international trafficking in materials, technology, expertise, such as the transnational network of Pakistani scientist A.Q. Khan, served as a reminder that proliferation required constant attention. Through diplomatic channels, military threats, and economic coercion, the Clinton Administration sought to work with allies to alleviate nuclear threats in such places as Libya, Iraq, and North Korea. Subsequent administrations hoped for productive results into the early 21st century despite instability in the Balkans, Middle East, Africa, and elsewhere.

So, what changed?

First, on the Korean peninsula tensions persisted. “Pyongyang’s continued failure to come into full compliance with its IAEA safeguard obligations,” according to Daniel Poneman, “appeared to threaten the project.”

Second, US policymakers and many among their allies in the international community lost sight of the importance of perception for a country like North Korea.

Third, American leaders too easily assumed that “unipolar” power, stability, and unilateralism could go hand-in-hand. US political rhetoric, especially related to nuclear and WMD negotiations and in sharp contrast to international economic agreements, abandoned the sense of mutual obligation and reciprocity that had been essential to Cold War and immediate post-Cold War diplomacy. Instead, American leaders tended to emphasize the pacts as treaties “to be enforced” rather than ones in which nations “shared,” which often resulted in resentment and retrenchment.

In terms of the Agreed Framework, Siracusa argues that the agreement collapsed because in 2002 President George W. Bush refused to honor the two most crucial precepts of the Agreement: helping to build light-water reactors and moving to normalize relations. North Korean diplomatic brinksmanship did not help, but rejecting direct negotiations was clearly a mistake. Pushing for new “six-party talks on North Korea, in which the two Koreas, China, Russia, Japan, and the United States were jointly to reach a solution with Kim Jong-il’s Stalinist regime” may have added too many voices and competing interests. Similarly, new incentives seemed to be aligning to make states like North Korea, in the wake of 9/11 seek nuclear power status as a bulwark against more overt attempts at regime change.

No longer obliged to the Framework, on 9 October 2006, North Korea exploded a nuclear bomb in a tunnel complex at Punggye, in the far north of the country, which made it the ninth nation in history to become a nuclear power.

In his 2002 State of the Union Address President Bush inveighed against all members of the “Axis of Evil.” Of the three “members” of this purported axis, Iraq was first to be invaded, in large part based on the premise that weapons of mass destruction were located there but no nuclear threshold had yet been reached. Iran has been attacked largely via sanctions and covert operations and to date there have been no recent military assaults on the nation’s nuclear facilities.

In contrast to Iraq and Iran, the already isolated, impoverished, and heavily sanctioned nuclear North Korean state, a nation that the New York Times deemed “too erratic, too brutal, and too willing to sell what it has to have a nuclear bomb,” has retained a high nuclear barrier to direct military action. Indeed, the Times in 2006 ruled out “a military strategy” entirely. The differential treatment of North Korea and Iraq, one nuclear-armed and the other not, has left strategists in Iran with mixed messages from the United States.

Even as nuclear stockpiles have been dramatically reduced, the new nuclear strategic world seems to be one of state proliferation. On the one hand “any confrontation between nuclear armed states runs the risk of escalating to the use of nuclear weapons, whether by inadvertence, accident, or bad decision-making,” reasons Tilman Ruff, co-chair of the International Steering Group and Australian Board member of the International Campaign to Abolish Nuclear Weapons. On the other hand, without those weapons, states and groups out of favor with the United States, Russia, or other “great” powers may find themselves far more susceptible to coercion or even attack. In turn, with nuclear weapons as a credible threat, states may be able to negotiate better deals, even if those accords ultimately might result in the relinquishing the very weapons themselves.

The ability of the impoverished North Korean state to stand up to the United States and its allies in recent years remains a product of its nuclear deterrent. The Russian annexation of Crimea followed by Russian-backed separatist attacks and revolution in the Ukraine pinpoint a similar counterfactual lesson: would a nuclear Ukraine be able to stand up more effectively to Russia? Kazakhstan and Belarus, which also gave up their Soviet era stockpiles in the mid-1990s, are confronting this question today.

There is an unfortunate logic for states to develop nuclear weapons in the 21st century, even if they have no intention of using them. Despite the end of the Cold War, the concept of deterrence may have more legitimacy than ever before. Potential combatants around the world now see the development of weapons of mass destruction, particularly nuclear, as a means of neutralizing the hegemonic capacities of the United States and other major military and economic powers. The stubborn, persistent spread of nuclear weapons – in large part because of the apparent strategic-diplomatic need for them – in a multi-polar world is more complicated and more problematic than most would have predicted in November 1994. In no small measure the changes of the last two decades mark a moment of diminished US leadership and what Andrew Bacevich has depicted as the limits of American power. The United States, in the wake of 9/11 and in attempting to combat the spread of WMDs, has not exactly made the world safe for an NPT by all-too-often abandoning the interest- and mutual security-based discussions of the 1990s.

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