Lessons from nuclear negotiations with North Korea
Iran is also making harsh demands that indicate intent to walk away
As a final nuclear agreement with Iran is pending, there are valuable lessons learned from decades of negotiations with North Korea. Ignoring these lessons would be unfortunate. In September 2005, the United States sanctioned Banco Delta Asia of Macao as a primary money-laundering institution, pursuant to the Patriot Act, freezing North Korea’s $25 million of accounts, most acquired from illicit sources. North Korea’s response was swift and clear: It refused to implement a recently negotiated six-party talks joint statement on an equitable resolution of the nuclear issue with North Korea. To emphasize this point, on July 4, 2006, North Korea launched seven missiles, including a long-range Taepodong 2, followed by a nuclear test that October. In discussions, North Korea was clear in stating that further escalation would follow if the United States did not restore its frozen accounts. The United States complied and in June 2007, the Federal Reserve Bank arranged with the Russian Central Bank to transfer these funds to the Russian Far Eastern Bank, where North Korea had an active account.
Returning to negotiations, the North Koreans stated that they wanted their country to be removed from the list of state sponsors of terrorism and from the Trading with the Enemy Act. The United States accommodated, removing North Korea from these lists in 2008. Prior to this, however, North Korea was confronted with evidence that it had an active uranium enrichment program and that it was supporting Syria with the construction of a plutonium reactor for nuclear weapons, which Israel destroyed in September 2007. The evidence was compelling, and U.S. negotiators were forceful in presenting this evidence to their North Korean interlocutors. North Korea denied having a uranium enrichment program and denied any nuclear involvement with Syria. North Koreans did, however, acknowledge U.S. concerns with both of these issues. That acknowledgment permitted the six-party talks to proceed.
Despite U.S. efforts to make progress with the September 2005 joint statement and given U.S. acquiescence with Pyongyang’s requests, North Korea refused in November 2008 to sign an orally agreed verification protocol that would have permitted monitors to inspect suspect sites outside of its Yongbyon plutonium facility and to collect and analyze samples from these suspect facilities. The refusal to sign this protocol convinced U.S. negotiators that North Korea was not serious about a meaningful verification protocol. To date, the six-party talks have not resumed, given North Korea’s apparent unwillingness to commit to complete and verifiable denuclearization that includes full disclosure on its uranium enrichment program and other nuclear facilities outside of its nuclear-declared facility at Yongbyon.
Without progress on the nuclear issue, plans to move forward on bilateral issues, required for the establishment of more normal relations, were suspended. Those talks would have included issues dealing with human rights abuses in North Korea, the counterfeiting of U.S. currency and selected pharmaceuticals, and trafficking in illicit drugs. As North Korea was often told, resolution of the nuclear issue in return for significant security assurances, and for economic and energy deliverables, was required before there could be movement toward a normal bilateral relationship. To achieve the latter, it required more than progress on the nuclear issue. Indeed, South Korea and Japan had their own bilateral issues. For Japan, progress on the abductee issue was critically important, and for South Korea, progress with separated families and other security issues had to be resolved prior to the establishment of normal state-to-state relations. This approach to negotiations with North Korea was spelled out in the September joint statement.
As we approach a final nuclear agreement with Iran, lessons from our decades of failed negotiations with North Korea should reinforce the importance of a verification protocol that permits monitors to have unfettered access to all sites, definitely to include nondeclared suspect nuclear sites. A written verification protocol that is clear in stating the processes and timelines
related to such access is critically important. Equally important, when access to sites is denied, are the processes and timelines related to negotiating denial of such access. Given the International Atomic Energy Agency’s experience in being denied access to facilities in Iran, clarity on all issues related to verification and monitoring is a core issue.
Sanctions relief, as we experienced with North Korea with regard to Banco Delta Asia, the state sponsors of terrorism list and the Trading with the Enemy Act, were actions the United States took in expectation of a meaningful verification protocol and progress with denuclearization. The U.S. took these actions, but North Korea didn’t reciprocate. This is a powerful message as we negotiate with Iran on when and under what circumstances sanctions will be removed.
Finally, resolving the nuclear issue with North Korea was the beginning of a process to establish more normal relations with the U.S., South Korea and Japan. This entailed a number of critically important bilateral issues for which resolution or progress toward resolution was necessary. Hopefully, Iran will realize that any nuclear agreement should entail some understanding and commitment to enter into a dialogue with its neighbors to discuss resolution of bilateral and regional issues important for the U.S. and its allies and partners in the region.
Given Iran’s close working political and military relationship with North Korea, Tehran knows clearly what North Korea’s experience has been in negotiating with the United States. What Tehran needs to know is that the U.S. learned a great deal from those negotiations — and is not prepared to make some of the same mistakes.
Joseph R. DeTrani is president of the Intelligence and National Security Alliance. He previously served as a senior adviser to the director of national intelligence, was director of the National Counterproliferation Center and the mission manager for North Korea, and was the special envoy for six-party talks with North Korea. The views are his own and do not reflect the views of any U.S. government agency or department.