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Lessons Of A Collapsed North Korean Nuclear Deal


President Trump announced, of course, that June 12 summit with North Korea's back on and also blamed his predecessors.



PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: This should've been handled many years ago not only by President Obama but by other presidents.

SIMON: The U.S. did strike a nuclear deal with North Korea under President Clinton. It held together for nearly eight years, then collapsed. And North Korea exploded its first nuclear bomb. NPR's David Welna revisits the deal known as the Agreed Framework.

DAVID WELNA, BYLINE: In the early 1990s, North Korea appeared hellbent on going nuclear. It rejected proposed international inspections, announced it was pulling out of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and said it intended to produce weapons-grade plutonium. Then former President Jimmy Carter intervened. He went to Pyongyang, brandishing an olive branch.


JIMMY CARTER: The time has come to establish full friendship and understanding.


WELNA: That helped lure North Korea, also known as the DPRK, into negotiations. In late 1994, a deal was struck that shut down its plutonium-producing reactor. The top U.S. negotiator was Robert Gallucci. He hailed the so-called Agreed Framework, at the time, as a breakthrough.


ROBERT GALLUCCI: Hundreds of nuclear weapons' worth of material would have been produced by these reactors. These reactors will be frozen now.

WELNA: In return for shutting down those graphite reactors, the U.S. promised to supply North Korea with heavy fuel oil and two light water reactors. Joel Wit was the State Department's coordinator for implementing the deal.

JOEL WIT: There were provisions to establish diplomatic relations. There were provisions to lift economic sanctions. There were provisions for security assurances. And so for them, all of that was a good deal.

WELNA: But in 2002, a different administration did not see the deal good for the U.S. President George W. Bush declared North Korea part of an axis of evil.


GEORGE W. BUSH: North Korea has a regime arming with missiles and weapons of mass destruction while starving its citizens.

WELNA: Later that year, the U.S. accused North Korea of secretly pursuing another path to nuclear weapons not through the prohibited plutonium process but by enriching uranium. Donald Rumsfeld, at the time, was defense secretary.


DONALD RUMSFELD: It is a fact. It is a reality that they stand in direct breach of, I guess, four separate agreements.

WELNA: The official then in charge of arms control at the State Department was John Bolton, who's now President Trump's national security adviser. Bolton would later write that North Korea's uranium enrichment was, quote, "the hammer I had been looking for to shatter the Agreed Framework." Nicholas Eberstadt, of the American Enterprise Institute, says he and Bolton often discussed that deal.

NICHOLAS EBERSTADT: John Bolton's assessment was that the North Korean side was untrustworthy and was negotiating in bad faith. And I'd say that the record, since then, amply bears out misgiving.

WELNA: Freed from inspections, North Korea tested its first nuclear weapon in 2006. Last month, a North Korean official declared, in her words, a feeling of repugnance towards John Bolton. But Joel Wit, who is now with the Stimson Center, says, in private, it was a different story.

WIT: The North Koreans, who have a good sense of humor and wanted to sort of twist the knife a little bit into the Americans, would thank John Bolton for helping them build a nuclear weapons stockpile.

WELNA: The lesson from all this, says Stanford University nuclear weapons expert Siegfried Hecker, is...

SIEGFRIED HECKER: If you're going to pull out of a deal, you'd better be prepared for the consequences.

WELNA: A lesson he also applies to the recent U.S. exit from the nuclear deal with Iran. David Welna, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.