Going Critical: The First North Korean Nuclear Crisis


A decade before being proclaimed part of the "axis of evil," North Korea raised alarms in Washington, Seoul, and Tokyo as the pace of its clandestine nuclear weapons program mounted. When confronted by evidence of its deception in 1993, Pyongyang abruptly announced its intention to become the first nation ever to withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, defying its earlier commitments to submit its nuclear activities to full international inspections.

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A decade before being proclaimed part of the "axis of evil," North Korea raised alarms in Washington, Seoul, and Tokyo as the pace of its clandestine nuclear weapons program mounted. When confronted by evidence of its deception in 1993, Pyongyang abruptly announced its intention to become the first nation ever to withdraw from the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, defying its earlier commitments to submit its nuclear activities to full international inspections.

U.S. intelligence had revealed evidence of a robust plutonium production program. Unconstrained, North Korea's nuclear factory would soon be capable of building about thirty Nagasaki-sized nuclear weapons annually. The resulting arsenal would directly threaten the security of the United States and its allies, while tempting cash-starved North Korea to export its deadly wares to America's most bitter adversaries.

In Go ing Critical, three former U.S. officials who played key roles in the nuclear crisis trace the intense efforts that led North Korea to freeze —and pledge ultimately to dismantle —its dangerous plutonium production program under international inspection, while the storm clouds of a second Korean War gathered. Drawing on international government documents, memoranda, cables, and notes, the authors chronicle the complex web of diplomacy--from Seoul, Tokyo, and Beijing to Geneva, Moscow, and Vienna and back again —that led to the negotiation of the 1994 Agreed Framework intended to resolve this nuclear standoff. They also explore the challenge of weaving together the military, economic, and diplomatic instruments employed to persuade North Korea to accept significant constraints on its nuclear activities, while deterring rather than provoking a violent North Korean response.

Some ten years after these intense negotiations, the Agreed Framework lies abandoned. North Korea claims to possess some nuclear weapons, while threatening to produce even more. The story of the 1994 confrontation provides important lessons for the United States as it grapples once again with a nuclear crisis on a peninsula that half a century ago claimed more than 50,000 American lives and today bristles with arms along the last frontier of the cold war: the De-Militarized Zone separating North and South Korea.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"GOING CRITICAL: THE FIRST NORTH KOREAN NUCLEAR CRISIS presents an authoritative account of the 1994 deal with North Korea.... The new book also provides a lively and engaging look into the inner workings of United States foreign policy making that is sure to captivate North Korea specialists and general readers alike." —Graham Allison, International Herald Tribune, 7/24/2004

"Reading Going Critical brought back the tensions and concerns of the earlier nuclear crisis of the 1990s. Of the three books under reivew, this is the most scholarly and the one most likely to have lasting value." —James Hoare, Times Higher Education Supplement, 9/24/2004

"From cabinet meetings is Washington to Geneva talks and North Korean associations with China, GOING CRITICAL is a 'must' for any who would understand the latest issues and their ongoing implications for a nuclear crisis." — The Bookwatch, 9/4/2004

"... a comprehensive insider's guide to the first North Korean nuclear standoff and an essential tool for comparing today's events to the last round...[The authors] argue convincingly that Washington cannot contract out its foreign policy on an interest as vital as assuring nuclear nonproliferation." —Scott Snyder, Asia Foundation, Foreign Affairs, 7/1/2004

"GOING CRITICAL: THE FIRST NORTH KOREAN NUCLEAR CRISIS presents an authoritative account of the 1994 deal with North Korea.... The new book also provides a lively and engaging look into the inner workings of United States foreign policy making that is sure to captivate North Korea specialists and general readers alike." —Graham Allison, Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, The New York Times, 7/20/2004

"Written with the rare benefit of special access to US government documents and incorporating the personal experiences of its three authors, all of whom played significant roles in the events of 1993-94, Going Critical recounts in detail the options that the Clinton administration considered at every stage of the story - and thus should prove invaluable to the Bush administration today." —Scott Snyder, Financial Review, 8/27/2004

"Going Critical represents the collective reconstruction of events by three US officials intimately involved in negotiating with North Korea in 1994 leading to the dismantling of plutonium production facilities under international inspection....[It] is definitely the most factual account of the 'first North Korean Nuclear crisis' lent authority by the key negotiators from the American side." —Geoffrey C. Gunn, Faculty of Economics, Nagasaki University, Journal of Contemporary Asia

"a 'how to' read for walking the minefield that constitutes relations and dealings with North Korea" —Chris Price, JoongAng Daily, 10/1/2005

"Going Critical is and should remain valuable reading for those interested not only in the North Korean crises of past and present, but in government decision-making, the practice of diplomacy, and non-proliferation more generally." —Sheena E. Chestnut, St. Antony's College, Oxford, Millennium, 11/1/2007

"Far beyond simply providing prelude and understanding to current events, Wit, Poneman, and Gallucci have given us a fascinating, blow-by-blow account of the stark nuclear crisis of 1994. This is a valuable book." —Brent Scowcroft, former National Security Adviser

"GOING CRITICAL is the definitive account of the first North Korean nuclear crisis. The authors were at the center of this crisis, and thus speak with a unique authority. Their account is comprehensive, objective, and exceptionally well written. I highly recommend this book to Korean scholars and to nuclear policy scholars. It is an indispensable resource to those who are involved with the ongoing negotiations with North Korea." —William J. Perry, former Secretary of Defense

"The nightmare of a nuclear North Korea continues to plague American policymakers. Anyone interested in how to handle this fraught problem should consult this definitive account of the first Korean nuclear crisis." —Joseph S. Nye, former Assistant Secretary of Defense and author of Soft Power

"This book has convinced me of the wisdom of discussing nuclear weapons with the Pyongyang regime. The authors have done a brilliant job of describing the complex discussions that took place over a number of years, and mirabile dictu, they have kept it interesting throughout. And they have convinced me that there was legitimate purpose to the conversations." —Lawrence Eagleburger, former Secretary of State

"In the 90s, North Korea's nuclear ambitions brought the world close to war. Today, those same ambitions have created the most serious crisis facing the United States. For all who want to understand how we got to where we are today, GOING CRITICAL is a must read. It is the very best accounting of the struggle ten years ago to fashion a diplomatic alternative to a potentially catastrophic war." —General John Shalikashvili, former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff

"GOING CRITICAL is an indispensable and fascinating study of high stakes negotiations, national security, and diplomacy. Wit, Poneman, and Gallucci have masterfully collaborated, telling a gripping tale of the first North Korean nuclear crisis and prescribing recommendations that bear on today's similar crisis." —Samuel R. Berger, former U.S. National Security Adviser

Scott Snyder
a comprehensive insider's guide to the first North Korean nuclear standoff and an essential tool for comparing today's events to the last round. . ..
Foreign Affairs
Graham Allison
Going Critical: The First North Korean Nuclear Crisis presents an authoritative account of the 1994 deal with North Korea, known as the Agreed Framework, by three participants in the negotiations. Robert L. Gallucci served as chief negotiator of the Agreed Framework, with his co-authors, Joel S. Wit at the State Department and Daniel B. Poneman at the National Security Council fine-tuning the nuts and bolts. Their book provides a gold mine of previously undisclosed decision memorandums, cabinet meeting minutes and scribbled notes from talks with the North Koreans.
The New York Times
Graham Allison
[S]ure to captivate North Korea specialists and general readers alike.
The New York Times, Tuesday July 20,
Foreign Affairs
...Today, many of the events of ten years ago seem to be repeating themselves. Although this crisis has several striking differences from the last one, the Bush administration would do well to study carefully the drama of 1993-94 and reflect on President Bill Clinton's choices before making its own. Fortunately, Washington has a powerful new tool to aid it in this task: Going Critical: The First North Korean Nuclear Crisis, a comprehensive insider's guide to the first North Korean nuclear standoff and an essential tool for comparing today's events to the last round. As the book makes clear, the stakes and the confusion of the original crisis could not have been greater; during its climax in 1994, Clinton even compared it to the Cuban missile crisis. Going Critical also underscores the changing risks of nuclear proliferation in what Yale's Paul Bracken has called the "second nuclear age" and expands on earlier accounts to offer an authoritative discussion of the events of the first crisis as viewed from Washington. Written with the rare benefit of special access to U.S. government documents and incorporating the personal experiences of its three authors, all of whom played significant roles in the events of 1993-94, Going Critical recounts in detail the options that the Clinton administration considered at every stage of the story — and thus should prove invaluable to the Bush administration today.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780815793861
  • Publisher: Brookings Institution Press
  • Publication date: 11/28/2003
  • Pages: 448
  • Product dimensions: 6.42 (w) x 9.60 (h) x 1.31 (d)

Meet the Author

Joel S. Wit is a senior fellow with the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He served for 15 years in the Department of State and was coordinator for the 1994 U.S.—North Korea Agreed Framework. Daniel B. Poneman is a senior fellow with the Forum for International Policy and a principal in The Scowcroft Group. He served on the National Security Council staff under Presidents George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton, including nearly four years as special assistant to the President for nonproliferation. Robert L. Gallucci is dean of Georgetown University's Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service. A career civil servant in the Department of State, he led the team that negotiated the Agreed Framework and served as assistant secretary for political-military affairs and ambassador-at-large.

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Table of Contents

1 A cornered dog will sometimes bite 1
2 An extremely peculiar nation : March-May 1993 26
3 No sitting president would allow North Korea to acquire nuclear weapons : June-August 1993 51
4 The twilight zone : September-December 1993 78
5 A sea of fire : January-March 1994 118
6 Ending history : April-May 1994 162
7 At the brink : June 3-June 14, 1994 192
8 We liked you starting from then : June 15-30, 1994 221
9 Sailing to an uncertain destination : July-August 1994 247
10 Progress usually comes at the eleventh hour : September-October 1994 293
11 What does not kill me makes me stronger : October 1994-July 1995 331
12 The land of counterpane 371
App. A: Chronology 409
App. B: Joint statements and agreements 419
Notes 429
Index 463
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First Chapter

Going Critical

The First North Korean Nuclear Crisis
By Joel S. Wit Daniel B. Poneman Robert L. Gallucci

Brookings Institution Press

Copyright © 2004 Brookings Institution Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0-8157-9386-3

Chapter One

A Cornered Dog Will Sometimes Bite

Flying over North Korea in 1980, an American spy satellite spotted something alarming: the foundations of what would become a 5-megawatt nuclear reactor. U.S. satellites had been watching the Yongbyon area, located about 100 kilometers north of Pyongyang, since the "Corona" program successfully orbited its first photo-reconnaissance mission in 1960. Initially the satellites spotted nothing at the site except a few small buildings. By 1965 construction activity was evident. A few years later, a small nuclear research reactor, provided to North Korea by the Soviet Union, was up and running. Although the reactor was not viewed as a direct threat, under Soviet pressure North Korea ultimately placed it and other related facilities under International Atomic Energy Agency safeguards, to provide assurance of their exclusively peaceful use. Throughout the 1970s, Yongbyon showed little additional activity. Then came the 1980 photographs showing the components of what appeared to be an even larger reactor near a large hole, presumably dug to accommodate its foundation. The discovery would eventually lead to a confrontation between Pyongyang and Washington over North Korea's nuclear weapons program.

The specter of nuclear weapons has contributed significantly to tensions and misperceptions on the peninsula ever since the Korean War. In November 1950 President Truman stated that the United States would take "whatever steps are necessary" to deter Chinese aggression, and warned that the use of nuclear weapons had been actively considered. There is evidence to suggest that Washington in subsequent months was prepared to drop these weapons on Korean and Chinese targets if Beijing had thrown more troops into the war. In February 1953 President Eisenhower began dropping "discreet hints" that nuclear weapons might be used. Later that year Secretary of State John Foster Dulles told India's leader, Jawaharal Nehru, that the United States would use "stronger rather than lesser" military means to end the war if negotiations failed. The administration hoped that this would be interpreted as an implied nuclear threat. Eisenhower and Dulles later maintained that threat was a major factor in bringing an end to the conflict.

More than twenty years later, in 1975, Secretary of Defense James Schlesinger publicly warned North Korea that the use of tactical nuclear weapons would be carefully considered in case of aggression. That danger may have seemed real a year later; after North Koreans killed two American soldiers, nuclear-capable bombers from Guam flew up the peninsula toward the Demilitarized Zone ("DMZ") dividing North from South Korea. A U.S. intelligence analyst recalled that the incident "blew their ... minds" in Pyongyang. That same year, presidential candidate Jimmy Carter asserted that the United States already had 700 atomic weapons in Korea. One observer later noted that Pyongyang might have viewed its acquisition of nuclear weapons as a necessity because the United States "had exposed North Korea, during its infancy as a nation, to the fearsome power and enormous political value of nuclear weapons."

On the surface, the North's nuclear activities evolved in the usual way, starting with peaceful cooperation agreements. In 1956 Pyongyang and Moscow signed two agreements designed to increase cooperation; North Korean scientists began receiving extensive training on nuclear physics at the Soviet Dubna Nuclear Research Complex. In 1959 Moscow and Pyongyang agreed to set up a research center in North Korea. Established on the right bank of the Kuryong River, 8 kilometers from the town of Yongbyon, the new center was called the "furniture factory," perhaps to hide its real purpose from the prying eyes of the outside world. In 1965, three years after a visit by Premier Alexei Kosygin, the Soviet Union delivered North Korea's first research reactor. It entered operation around 1967.

North Korea's interest in nuclear weapons emerged from the shadows in the early 1960s. Kim Il Sung announced a new self-reliant military policy, stimulated by what he saw as Moscow's capitulation to Washington during the Cuban missile crisis. Part of the strategy was to build deep and heavy fortifications in case of an American nuclear attack. But Pyongyang also wanted its own nuclear arsenal. In 1964 a North Korean delegation visiting China carried a letter to Mao Zedong from Kim observing that since the two communist countries had shared the burden of war, they should also share atomic secrets. China responded that such weapons were unnecessary for a small country. Another appeal to Beijing later on was also rejected.

Around the world, nuclear ambitions intensified in the 1970s. The 1973 oil crisis spiked international interest in nuclear energy as an alternative to dependence on the vagaries of Middle East politics. The 1974 test by India of what it disingenuously described as a "peaceful nuclear explosive"-derived from plutonium produced in a research reactor imported from Canada, with heavy water imported from the United States-demonstrated that nuclear technology acquired under the flag of peaceful nuclear cooperation could be diverted to military use. The Indian nuclear test drove American policymakers to redouble their efforts to curb worrisome nuclear efforts in a host of other nations, including Argentina, Brazil, South Africa, Pakistan, Taiwan, North Korea, South Korea, and several Middle Eastern nations.

Government decisions to pursue nuclear weapons tend to be most heavily influenced by their security environment. In South Korea, the perception of a growing threat from the North combined with President Richard Nixon's decision to withdraw the Seventh Infantry Division led President Park Chung Hee to launch a covert program to develop a nuclear bomb. Central to this effort was an agreement to purchase a plutonium reprocessing plant from France. Under strong diplomatic pressure from the Ford administration, the South reluctantly curbed its weapons program and abandoned the reprocessing plant. U.S. pressure to block South Korean efforts to advance its nuclear weapons option continued into the Carter administration.

North Korea's response to the altered nuclear equation in the 1970s was equally predictable. Pyongyang sought to upgrade its modest program when it negotiated with the Soviet Union for a much larger, 5-megawatt research reactor. Eventually, Pyongyang decided to build the reactor itself, using its previous experience and whatever technology it could get overseas. The new gas-graphite moderated design, based on declassified British blueprints, enabled it to use natural uranium fuel which, when irradiated, served as an ideal source for weapons plutonium. Each core load would produce about 30 kilograms of plutonium-enough for about five nuclear warheads. This facility, spotted by the American spy satellite, began operation in the mid-1980s, but by then work had begun on another reactor, ten times as powerful. Belatedly, the United States pressed Moscow, as North Korea's key ally, to exert pressure on Pyongyang to join the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. In 1985, persuaded by a Soviet pledge to provide it with four full-size nuclear power plants, the Pyongyang government did just that.

Under the provisions of the treaty, within eighteen months of accession a new member must conclude a comprehensive safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency. This did not happen. The IAEA mistakenly sent the wrong form of agreement to North Korea, an error that was not remedied until the end of the eighteen months. It was only discovered when the North Koreans rejected the agreement as transgressing their national sovereignty. That neither North Korean, IAEA, nor U.S. officials had even bothered to look closely enough at the draft agreement to recognize such an obvious blunder demonstrates a mystifyingly lackadaisical attitude toward North Korea's nonproliferation obligations. When the correct form was finally sent to Pyongyang, a further eighteen months passed without obtaining North Korean acceptance of a safeguards agreement, much less implementation of its safeguards obligations. And when those eighteen months had passed, the United States prodded the IAEA but it took no serious action to press North Korea to comply with its nonproliferation commitments. The North Korean program metastasized during this period of indifference into a full-scale plutonium production effort that would require radical surgery to dismantle.

Pyongyang's drive toward nuclear weapons may also have been intensified because of its increasing sense of isolation, due in part to the widening gap between the North and South Korean economies. Per capita incomes in the South did not overtake those in the North until the mid-1970s. Year after year little changed in the North-a lonely bastion of Stalinism, insulated from the forces of change that ultimately destroyed the Soviet Union and its East European satellites. By the mid-1980s annual economic growth sputtered along at about 2 to 3 percent a year, then declined 3 to 5 percent a year beginning in 1989. With the collapse of outside economic support from Pyongyang's erstwhile communist allies-themselves shuffling into oblivion-the decline rate hit 10 to 15 percent in the early 1990s.

The story in South Korea stood in stark contrast, as a series of politically repressive but economically dynamic leaders led Seoul to follow Japan's footsteps as the next "Asian miracle." Between 1962 and 1995 the South Korean economy expanded at an average annual rate of 8.5 percent. Its gross national product grew from $2.3 billion to $437.4 billion, corresponding to a per capita rise from $87 to $9,511 at current prices. The economic revolution coursed through many sectors; between 1980 and 1990 annual growth rates exceeded 11 percent for industry, 12 percent for manufacturing, and 8 percent for services. By 1992 South Korea exceeded North Korean GNP by more than a factor of 10, a gap that continued to widen as Pyongyang's economy struggled and the South hummed along at 5 percent annual growth rates. And while military governments continued to rule, they had gained enough respectability to win the right to host the Summer Olympic Games in 1988.

Of equal or greater importance, North Korea's traditional allies had forever changed in ways that undermined its few pillars of foreign support. Maoist China, source of the Cultural Revolution and inspiration to the anti-imperialist opponents of the "capitalist-roaders," had given way to a more pragmatic regime that sought better relations with Seoul. The changes in the Soviet Union were more profound, as Gorbachev struggled through calibrated political and economic reform-perestroika-to keep his country from collapsing under the weight of tyranny and communist economics. In the words of the widely respected Korea expert Don Oberdorfer, the Soviet Union evolved from godfather and benefactor of North Korea to partner and client of South Korea. By 1991 the 38th parallel had become a lonely, isolated outpost of armed, cold war confrontation. Meeting in Pyongyang with William Taylor, a prominent American expert on Korea, the North Korean leader Kim Il Sung observed: "The world is changing all around us."

The fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe, and the rapprochement between South Korea and China and the Soviet Union probably had a profound effect on North Korea's leaders. Kim Il Sung must have been alarmed by the whirlwind of events throughout the communist world, questioning whether his regime could survive the newly unleashed centripetal forces of democracy and free markets that were beginning to take root. North Korea had already begun in the mid-1980s to show signs of opening to the outside world and experimenting with its stagnating economy. By 1985 the two Koreas were engaged in a dialogue that reflected a serious and much debated policy in Pyongyang of seeking limited accommodation with Seoul and engaging the United States. At the same time, there also seemed to emerge in the leadership a group of economic "realists" who tinkered with the system to get it moving and favored some foreign entry into the economy.

Further complicating matters, Kim Il Sung was preparing for the succession of his son Kim Jong Il. The elder Kim, born in 1912 near Pyongyang, gained notoriety as a guerilla leader against Japanese occupation forces. He rose to power after World War II in the Russian-occupied half of the peninsula, becoming chairman of the Korean Workers Party in 1949. Kim would hold that position until his death in 1994, presiding over the Democratic People's Republic of Korea and called the "Great Leader" by his people. His son, Kim Jong Il, the "Dear Leader" while his father was alive, was born in 1942 in the Russian Far East. Until high school he was known by his Russian name, Yuri. After he graduated from Kim Il Sung University, his first real job was chief of his father's bodyguards. The younger Kim seems to have begun his rise to power in 1971 in what promised to be the first communist dynasty.

That process had been under way for two decades as the younger Kim was brought up through the party ranks, giving him experience at successively higher levels of leadership and building his base of support from the bottom up. By the end of the 1980s, he had taken control of party affairs and the economy. Kim Jong Il was also increasingly influential in running North Korea's national security and foreign policy affairs-including its nuclear program-although his father still maintained some undetermined role. Conventional wisdom at the time portrayed the younger Kim as spoiled, erratic, and cruel. But other sources indicated that he appeared to take a consistent approach, supporting "economic realists," presiding over the North's policy of limited opening to Seoul and Washington and initiatives to improve ties with Japan, Western Europe, and even Israel. In short, Kim Jong Il remained an enigma.

The First Bush administration

This was the Korean reality inherited by the new Bush administration in 1989, a reality that became more disturbing with the discovery of a reprocessing facility at Yongbyon. The rectangular building would have been hard to miss; located in a complex south of the 5-megawatt reactor, it was about the length of two football fields and six stories high. Incredibly in retrospect, some analysts posited that the building housed a production line for vinalon, a synthetic material similar to nylon, though why such a facility would be collocated with heavily protected nuclear plants was never adequately explained. On the other hand, building a reprocessing facility alongside the production reactors made great sense.


Excerpted from Going Critical by Joel S. Wit Daniel B. Poneman Robert L. Gallucci Copyright © 2004 by Brookings Institution Press . Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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