The ICAS Lectures


North Korea's Threats & U.S. Posture

Robert G. Gard

ICAS Spring Symposium

Humanity, Peace and Security
The Korean Peninsula Issues

May 18, 2010 Tuesday 1:30 PM - 5:00 PM
Rayburn Office Building Room B 318
United States House of Representatives
Capitol Hill, Washington, DC 20515

Institute for Corean-American Studies, Inc.
965 Clover Court, Blue Bell, PA 19422

Biographic sketch & Links: Robert G. Gard

North Korea's Threats & U.S. Posture

Robert G. Gard
Lt. General (USA, Ret.)

North Korea's Threats & U.S. Posture, address by Lt. General (USA, Ret.) Robert Gard, Senior Military Fellow, Center for Arms Control & Non-Proliferation, 18 May 2010 (expanded at the request of the conference host)

I'm honored to keynote this conference on Korean Peninsula Issues. The topic assigned to me is North Korea's Threat and U.S. Posture. Since I believe that the South Korean military, augmented by U.S. forces, is more than strong enough to deter, and if necessary defeat, a military attack by North Korea, I will not discuss the military confrontation. I will focus on the nuclear issue by reviewing the U.S. negotiating posture during the attempts to try to prevent North Korea from developing nuclear weapons and, subsequently, to give them up and dismantle its nuclear weapons programs.

Given the topics of the two speakers who follow me, I will not address either the sinking of the South Korean corvette, Choenan, or the broader geopolitics of the Six Party talks. Also, I recognize that North Korea's development of missile delivery systems is closely related to its nuclear weapons program; but in the interest of time, I will not delve into the details of the U.S. position on that issue in my discussion.

I am assuming that it is evident that a nuclear-armed North Korea is exceedingly detrimental to U.S. and allied security interests. Also, I believe it equally obvious that a military attack on North Korean nuclear facilities is highly unlikely to succeed in eliminating its nuclear capability and quite likely to entail unacceptable risks and costs. The only realistic option, in my view, is a negotiated agreement to persuade North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons and its programs to produce them.

While it is not my intention to minimize North Korean intransigence, I propose to review some highlights of U.S. negotiating strategies, tactics and actions which I believe illustrate lessons that should instruct our future efforts to achieve the important objective of a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula. Until I reach the conclusion of my opening remarks, I will let the scenario speak for itself rather than commenting on it along the way.

Permit me for background to begin the scenario of highlights in 1985, when North Korea (NK) signed the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) on 12 December. In the following year, NK activated its small five-megawatt reactor at Yongbyong. In 1988, the U.S. designated NK a State Sponsor of Terrorism based on several of its previous actions, including the downing of a South Korean airliner the year before. In September 1991, the U.S. withdrew all tactical nuclear weapons, both naval- and land-based, deployed abroad, including some 100 stationed in South Korea. NK stopped reprocessing its spent nuclear fuel to extract plutonium and joined South Korea on 31 December in signing the Joint Declaration on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. This agreement included renunciation of the possession of nuclear reprocessing and uranium enrichment facilities.

In 1992, Moscow recognized South Korea; and prophetically, the NK Foreign Minister said that the country would "take measures to provide ... some weapons which we have so far relied on the alliance" to supply. On 30 January, NK finally concluded a safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), more than five years after expiration of the specified 18 month period following the signing of the NPT, and ratified it on 9 April. NK declared seven nuclear sites and some 90 grams of plutonium subject to IAEA inspection on 4 May.

In September, the IAEA concluded that NK had been producing plutonium beginning at least three years earlier than it had admitted, and noted obvious discrepancies between the configuration of a peaceful nuclear program and NK's weapons-oriented nuclear facilities. So in February 1993, the IAEA asked NK to submit to additional, specifically targeted, inspections. NK not only refused, but also ejected the IAEA inspectors; and on 12 March, announced its intention to withdraw from the NPT, while claiming that it had no intention to develop nuclear weapons.

On 1 April '93, the IAEA stated that it could not guarantee that NK nuclear materials were not being diverted for military purposes. On 11 June, NK suspended its threat to withdraw from the NPT and stated agreement to full application of IAEA safeguards; in return, the U.S. gave NK assurance against the threat or use of force and promised not to interfere in the NK internal affairs. On 19 July, following talks, NK expressed its willingness to begin consultation with IAEA to allow inspection of its nuclear facilities. In late 1993, a U.S. intelligence report estimated that NK had separated about 12 kilograms of plutonium, enough for one or two nuclear weapons. On 15 February 1994, NK finalized an agreement with IAEA to inspect its seven declared nuclear facilities, thereby averting sanctions by the UN Security Council. But on 21 March, NK refused to allow inspection of its plutonium reprocessing facility. On 13 June, NK announced withdrawal from the IAEA. Two days later, following a visit, former President Carter declared that NK was willing to freeze its nuclear program and resume talks with the U.S.

Kim IL Sung died on 9 July 1994. On 12 August, an Agreed Statement provided for a three stage process to eliminate the NK nuclear program; in return, the U.S. would move toward normalized economic and diplomatic relations with NK and provide assistance with the construction of proliferation resistant light water reactors to replace NK's graphite moderated reactors.

Following intensive bi-lateral negotiations, during which the U.S. considered bombing NK nuclear facilities, the so-called Agreed Framework was signed in October 1994, the same year that Kim Jong IL succeeded his father as the leader of NK.

As part of the Agreed Framework, North Korea agreed to remain a party to the NPT; to freeze, and eventually dismantle, its plutonium production program by shutting down the Yongbyong reactor, two other reactors under construction, and the Radio Chemical Laboratory facility for separating weapons grade plutonium from spent reactor fuel; to allow 8,000 spent fuel rods to be removed to a third country; and to implement the agreement with South Korea on a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula.

The U.S., in coordination with South Korea and Japan, agreed to reduce barriers to trade and investment with NK within three months; to work toward normalization of relations; to provide formal assurances against the threat or use of nuclear weapons against NK; to organize an international consortium with Japan and South Korea to build two light water reactors, the first to be completed in 2003 (North Korea agreed to full compliance safeguards by the IAEA after a significant portion of the work is completed); and to provide 500,000 tons of heavy fuel oil annually until completion of the reactors. On 9 March 1995, the U.S., South Korea and Japan formed KEDO, the Korean Economic Development Organization, to finance and construct the light water reactors.

The Agreed Framework helped to facilitate the indefinite extension of the NPT during the 1995 Review Conference.

For several years, the U.S. made almost no progress in fulfilling the commitments it made in the Agreed Framework, and the Congress demonstrated its lack of support by failing to appropriate the necessary funds. Financial sanctions were not eased, nor were actions taken to normalize relations for some six years when U.S. Secretary of State Madeline Albright finally traveled to NK for a two-day visit in October 2000, and met for several hours with Kim Jong IL. In the interim, the South Korean President announced on 25 February 1998 the "Sunshine Policy," intended to improve relations with NK through peace, reconciliation and cooperation. North Korea launched its first test of a three-stage Taepodong missile over Japan on 31 August '98, then pledged on 13 September to freeze long range missile tests.

Finally, in September 1999, the U.S. agreed to a partial lifting of economic sanctions by allowing trade in consumer goods; but this relatively meaningless gesture was not accomplished until June of 2000, eight additional months later. On 15 December 1999, more than five years after the Agreed Framework was signed, the U.S. agreed to begin construction of the light water reactors; but concrete for the foundation of the first reactor was not poured until 7 August 2002. In early 2001, North Korea had threatened to re-start its reactor if the U.S. did not provide compensation for the lengthy delays in building the first of the two light water reactors.

On 6 March 2001, Colin Powell, Secretary of State in the new Bush administration, declared that "we plan to engage with North Korea to pick up where President Clinton and his administration left off." President Bush, skeptical of the Agreed Framework, said after meeting the next day with the President of South Korea, "any negotiations would require complete verification of the terms of a potential agreement." Later that month, Bush repudiated Secretary Powell's statement by telling the South Korean President that the U.S. would not continue talks with NK. The administration adopted a position requiring North Korea to implement in advance of any concessions the outcome sought by the U.S. in the negotiations: "CVID," the complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantlement of the NK nuclear program.

The administration instituted confrontational policies and issued pronouncements that had the effect of encouraging North Korea to produce nuclear weapons to deter U.S. aggression. In his State of the Union address on 29 January 2002, President Bush anointed NK, along with Iraq and Iran, as charter members of the "Axis of Evil." The classified version of the Nuclear Posture Review, leaked in March 2002, stated that the U.S. could employ nuclear weapons "preemptively" against NK, Iraq, Iran, Syria and Libya to prevent their developing nuclear weapons. On 13 March 2002, NK responded that it would not remain a passive onlooker to being on the hit list, but would take strong countermeasures against it: "A nuclear war to be imposed by the U.S. nuclear fanatics on the DPRK [Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea, or NK] would be their ruin in a nuclear disaster."

In July 2002, NK requested a meeting between its Foreign Minister and Secretary of State Powell. President Bush refused, calling Kin Jong IL a "pygmy" and a "spoiled child at the dinner table." In response to a critical speech on 29 August by Undersecretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, John Bolton, NK stated two days later that "if the U.S. will drop its hostile policy toward the DPRK it will have dialogue ... the ball is in the court of the U.S. side." Shortly thereafter, the administration's National Security Doctrine, released on 17 September 2002, confirmed that "America will act against emerging threats before they are fully formed;" to counter those bent on acquiring weapons of mass destruction, the U.S. "will not hesitate to act alone, if necessary, to exercise our right to self defense, by acting preemptively."

James Kelly, Assistant Secretary of State for Asian and Pacific Affairs, visited Pyongyang 3 to 5 October 2002, and presented evidence that NK had instituted a uranium enrichment program; and on 16 Oct, he claimed that a NK official had admitted it. The following month, President Bush stated at a news conference that NK had a uranium enrichment program that could be fully operational by 2005. If true, this in fact would have been a violation of the Agreed Framework. That agreement included a commitment to comply with the joint NK/South Korean Declaration on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, which prohibited the possession of uranium enrichment facilities or facilities to produce plutonium by re-processing spent fuel. On 14 November, KEDO suspended heavy fuel oil deliveries; the last shipment reached NK on 18 Nov. Ten days later, the IAEA passed a resolution calling on NK to clarify its reported uranium enrichment program.

This prompted a response of significant potential in a message from Kim Jong IL, delivered to the White House by Donald Gregg, ambassador to South Korea during the administration of the first President Bush, and Donald Oberdorfer, a former Washington Post reporter: "If the United States recognizes our sovereignty and assures non- aggression, it is our view that we should be able to find a way to resolve the nuclear issue in compliance with the demands of a new century. If the United States makes a bold decision, we will respond accordingly." But the U.S. administration did not even respond, and additionally persuaded South Korea and Japan to join in stopping the delivery of fuel oil to NK.

Shortly thereafter, on 12 December 2002, NK requested the IAEA to remove its seals and monitoring equipment from NK nuclear facilities; and beginning 22 Dec, NK cut the seals and disrupted IAEA surveillance equipment. On 27 Dec, NK ordered the IAEA inspectors out of the country; they left by the 31st. On 10 January 2003, NK announced its withdrawal from the NPT, its abrogation of the Agreed Framework, its intent to recover plutonium from its spent fuel rods, and its plan to re-start the Yongbyong reactor.

In April 2003, China proposed organizing talks with NK; and on the 28th of that month, NK informed the U.S. that it had nuclear weapons, might conduct a weapons test and even export nuclear weapons, depending on actions by the United States. On 12 May 2003, NK withdrew from the agreement with South Korea for a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula. Yet in August of 2003, NK agreed to participate in Six Party Talks with the U.S., China, South Korea, Japan and Russia.

The first round was held in Beijing from 27-29 August 2003. In return for dismantlement of its nuclear facilities, ending missile tests and the export of missiles and related components, NK proposed normalization of relations with the U.S., a non-aggression treaty, resumption of fuel oil deliveries, cessation from hindering NK economic cooperation with other countries, increased food aid and completion of the light water reactors promised in the Agreed Framework. The U.S. held fast to CVID, the complete, verifiable, irreversible dismantlement of the NK nuclear program, before it would discuss a non-aggression agreement and, perhaps some time in the future, economic development assistance. The KEDO executive board announced a one year suspension of the construction of the light water reactors beginning 1 December; and the U.S. continued its public hostility toward the NK regime, not only in round one, but also in rounds two (February '04) and three (June '04).

In February 2004, South Korea proposed to provide energy assistance to NK in return for a freeze of its nuclear program and a promise to dismantle it. During the third round of Six Party talks from 23 to 26 June '04, the U.S. proposed a two-phased process in which NK would receive fuel oil in return for agreeing first to freeze then dismantle its nuclear program. In return, the U.S. would begin bilateral discussions on the removal of U.S. sanctions; and in coordination with the other parties, would draft a multilateral security agreement and begin surveying NK's energy needs. NK countered by stating that the length of a freeze on its facilities and on producing, testing or transferring nuclear weapons would depend on whether rewards in fact were forthcoming. On 26 November '04, KEDO announced the extension of its suspension of the light water reactor project for another year, beginning 1 December.

On 10 February 2005, NK announced that it had produced nuclear weapons. President Bush stated on 8 March that Iran and other nations, clearly including NK, have the example of Iraq, which the U.S. had invaded and overthrown its regime. NK was quick to respond to the threat: "Iraq showed that only a tremendous military deterrent force, powerful enough to beat back an attack, can avert a war and protect the security of the country." On 9 April, the NK Vice Foreign Minister was reported to have said that NK might give nuclear weapons to terrorists if "the United States drives us into a corner."

Later that month, the U.S. administration modified its position somewhat, offering immediate energy assistance if NK would agree to terminate its nuclear weapons program. In mid June 2005, Kim Jong IL told a South Korean official that NK would return to the talks if the U.S. would be prepared to respect NK as an equal partner, and that NK would be willing to negotiate the elimination of its nuclear weapons program and allow the return of IAEA monitors. On 5 July, one week before the talks were scheduled to resume, the U.S. administration sponsored a conference on NK human rights and refused to comment on how it might affect the upcoming talks. On 9 July, NK announced its return to the Six Party talks; reportedly, the U.S. agreed to recognize NK as a sovereign state, to abstain from invading NK and to hold bi-lateral talks within the Six Party framework. South Korea pledged 2,000 megawatts of electricity and a half million tons of grain if NK would agree to give up its nuclear weapons program Talks began on 26 July, with agreement on 7 August to a recess; talks resumed on 13 September.

The fourth round of the Six Party Talks produced a milestone Statement of Principles, signed on 19 September 2005, which included provisions for "Coordinated steps ... in a phased manner in line with the principle of 'commitment for commitment, action for action'." It was evident that the U.S. had withdrawn, finally, from its hard-line CVID policy; it also affirmed in the agreement that it had no intention of attacking or invading NK and that it would respect NK sovereignty. Yet the U.S. took almost simultaneous action to freeze some $25 million in NK funds deposited in Banco Delta Asia in Macao, which it accused of laundering ill-acquired NK money. Regarding this action as an attack on its sovereignty, NK suspended participation in round five of the Six Party Talks.

Tensions rose during the first half of 2006, with an exchange of threats between the U.S. and NK and a refusal by the U.S. to engage in direct talks. The Vice Foreign Minister told reporters on 13 April that NK would return to the talks if the U.S. lifted the freeze on its funds in the Macao bank. The KEDO executive board announced on 1 June '06 that it had formally terminated its project to build two light water reactors in NK. On 5 July, NK tested six No Dong and SCUD missiles, followed by a failed test of a long range Taepodong missile. The U.S. tightened financial sanctions on NK and urged other nations to be wary of the risks of business dealings with NK. On 3 October '06, NK warned that it would test a nuclear weapon but would refrain from first use, prohibit any transfers and do its utmost to achieve denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. Six days later, on 9 Oct, NK conducted an underground test of a very low yield nuclear device.

This obviously prompted the U.S. to re-evaluate the situation and to decide to be more forthcoming. Six Party Talks resumed from 18 to 22 December 2006, after a 15 month hiatus; but progress foundered, due principally to NK objections to its funds being frozen in the Macao bank. In early February 2007, the U.S. requested a bi-lateral meeting with NK officials, held in Berlin, and promised to release NK funds from the bank in Macao.

Following Six Party talks from 8 to 13 February '07, an agreement was reached on a phase I "commitment for commitment," as specified in the Statement of Principles. The five parties to the talks agreed to deliver to NK one million tons of fuel oil, 50 tons within 60 days; the U.S. agreed to end the freeze on NK funds in the Macao bank, to begin the process of removing NK from the list of State Sponsors of Terrorism and to stop applying the Trading with the Enemy Act against NK. NK agreed to shut down, disable and abandon its nuclear weapons programs, admit IAEA inspectors and declare its nuclear program activities by 31 December 2007. Five working groups were established: economic and energy cooperation; denuclearization; Northeast Asia peace and security; NK relations with the U.S.; and NK relations with Japan.

The sixth round of talks that began on 19 March 2007 was quickly suspended by NK until the U.S. returned the funds frozen in the Macao bank. On 10 April '07, the U.S. finally agreed to do so; and an NK Foreign Ministry spokesman confirmed on 25 June '07 that the funds had been returned, and that NK would begin shutting down its nuclear facilities. On 16 July, the IAEA confirmed that the NK reactor had been shut down. The following September, Israel bombed a building under construction in Syria that strikingly resembled a NK nuclear facility. Yet talks resumed on 27 September; and on 3 October 2007, a joint statement was issued on phase II of agreed commitments reached in the Six Party talks. NK will disable its Yongbyong nuclear facilities, will not transfer nuclear material or technology abroad and will disclose its nuclear programs. The U.S. will advance the process of terminating sanctions under its Trading with the Enemy Act and begin removing NK from the list of State Sponsors of Terrorism. The five parties will provide the remaining 900,000 tons of heavy fuel oil or its equivalent.

Two months later, on 12 December 2007, Secretary of State Rice issued a statement warning of a serious retrenchment by the U.S.: she told the Associated Press that the United States was not prepared to engage NK broadly until "all aspects of its nuclear weapons program are ended first and foremost." On 4 January 2008, NK accused the other five parties of falling behind in their commitments made in the agreement of the previous October, including delivery of fuel oil. The statement said that as a result, NK would slow down the disablement process.

The forecast of a backward step by the U.S. was confirmed by the report of a U.S. delegation to NK, headed by a former director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, issued on 16 February 2008, more than four months after the conclusion of the phase II agreement. The report noted that NK had received only 200,000 tons of the 500,000 tons of fuel oil promised, and only a limited amount of the equipment and parts to repair its electrical grid agreed to in lieu of the other 500,000 tons of fuel oil.; the U.S. had not moved toward removing NK from the list of State Sponsors of Terrorism, even though the State Department had acknowledged that there had been no acts of terror committed by NK since 1987; and NK companies were still bared from U.S. commerce under the Trading with the Enemy Act, restrictions left over from the Korean war which ended in 1953. The delegation report concluded that NK was willing to carry out the rest of its obligations once energy and other issues were resolved.

In April '08, the U.S. agreed to a request from NK that the disclosure of its nuclear activities could be separated in two phases. First, NK would disclose records related to its plutonium programs, while acknowledging U.S. concerns regarding uranium enrichment and nuclear assistance to Syria. One month later, on 8 May, NK submitted to the U.S. delegation in Pyongyang extensive documentation dating back to 1986 of its operations of its nuclear reactor and reprocessing facility; and on 26 June, it provided to China a declaration of its nuclear programs, stating that it had separated a total of about 30 kilograms of plutonium and used about 2 kilograms in its 2006 test. In return, President Bush rescinded application of the Trading with the Enemy Act against NK and notified Congress of his intent to remove NK from the list of State Sponsors of Terrorism after 45 days, as required by law. On 27 June, the cooling tower on the Yongbyong reactor was destroyed.

Although there were no provisions in the Phase II agreement for verification, the U.S. surprisingly demanded immediate conclusion of arrangements to verify the veracity of the NK declarations. In a speech on 18 June at the Heritage Foundation, more than eight months after the Phase II agreement, Secretary of State Rice admitted that the U.S. was unilaterally advancing provisions for verification measures, which were to be taken up in the next phase, as a condition to the U.S. fulfilling its Phase II commitments to de-list NK as a State Sponsor of Terrorism and relax sanctions under the Trading with the Enemy Act. "Before these actions go into effect," she said, "we would access the level of North Korean cooperation in helping verify the accuracy and completeness of the declaration" of its plutonium program.

In bi-lateral talks, NK agreed that it would cooperate in establishing a Six Party verification mechanism which would allow visits to declared facilities and permit interviews with technical personnel as part of the process of reviewing the validity of documents. This commitment was codified in a Six Party communiqu on 12 July. Nevertheless, a few days later, the U.S. handed NK a stringent draft verification protocol on verification of all elements of NK's nuclear programs, including uranium enrichment, and repeated its unwillingness to fulfill its Phase II commitments until its verification demands were met. President Bush took no action to remove NK from the list of State Sponsors of Terrorism following expiration of the 45 day period. On 26 Aug '08, NK noted that a verification protocol was not a condition for removing NK from the list of State Sponsors of Terrorism, and that NK would suspend disablement of the Yongbyong reactor; 10 of the 12 disabling procedures already had been accomplished.

On 1 October '08, U.S. Ambassador Hill submitted to NK a less intrusive draft verification protocol, which included some sampling and forensic measures. On 11 October, in another reversal, the U.S. removed NK from the State Department's list of State Sponsors of Terrorism; but then decided to suspend energy aid until NK accepted the earlier and more intrusive verification protocol. Following delivery of the final shipment of U.S. heavy fuel oil in early December, the U.S. persuaded South Korea and Japan to join in the suspension.

On 5 April 2009, NK attempted a reputed launch of a satellite with a long range Taepodong rocket, resulting in failure; the launch was condemned as a contravention of a UNSC Resolution (1718). NK then formally withdrew from the Six Party process, declaring it would never again participate, and threatened to bolster its nuclear deterrent. On 16 April, NK ejected IAEA and U.S. monitors; and on 25 May 2009, NK conducted its second nuclear test, with yield estimates ranging from two to eight KT, leading to UN Security Council Resolution 1874, which authorized interdiction of arms shipments to and from NK.

In July 2009, former President Clinton visited NK and secured the release of two U.S. journalists who reportedly had entered NK territory illegally. The following month, NK issued a statement that it remained open to a "specific and reserved form of dialogue," and later stated a re-commitment to a nuclear-free Korean Peninsula. In a speech at the U.S. Institute of Peace on 21 October '09, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared that the U.S. was prepared to meet bi-laterally with NK within the framework of the Six Party talks; but she appeared to signal a return to a version of the hard-line position prior to the September 2005 Statement of Principles that embraced reciprocal "commitment for commitment, action for action." She said that "current sanctions will not be relaxed until Pyongyang takes verifiable, irreversible steps toward complete denuclearization." On 7 May 2010, Kim Jong IL stated in China that NK is resolved to work toward resumption of talks and the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula; three days later, the South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated that Six Party talks can be resumed, but only after resolution of the incident of the sinking of the Cheonan.


It is impossible to determine whether or not it would have been possible to achieve an agreement with NK to stop short of developing nuclear weapons, or to give them up and dismantle its nuclear weapons programs, had the U.S. negotiated sensibly and in good faith. What does seem clear in retrospect is that many of the U.S. policies and actions did not encourage NK cooperation. The lessons from this overly long historical account seem obvious:

Fundamentally, it is important to recognize a principal purpose of diplomacy. When nations disagree on matters of national interest, they should seek agreements on outcomes that are mutually beneficial.

It is counterproductive to withhold dialogue or negotiations on the pretext that it somehow rewards bad behavior.

Serious overtures responsibly delivered should not be summarily rejected.

It is unreasonable to insist that the other party concede one's desired outcome as precondition to engaging in negotiations or agreeing to mutual interim concessions.

Gratuitous threats and insults can impede progress in negotiations. The psychological aspects of interchanges should not be ignored.

Once made, commitments should be scrupulously honored. Vacillation and unilateral changes to interim agreements should be avoided.

It is essential to focus on the principal objective of the negotiations and not allow lesser tactical considerations to block progress.

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