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Strategic Implications of the U.S.-DPRK Framework Agreement

Authored by Dr. Thomas L. Wilborn. | April 1995

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On October 21, 1994, the United States and the Democratic People?s Republic of Korea (DPRK) signed an ?Agreed Framework? which is designed to provide the procedure to resolve the dispute over North Korea?s nuclear weapons program. If and when successfullyexecuted,it willsatisfyU.S. negotiating objectives, but, in the process, propel the United States into thecenter of North-South conflict. ForSouth Korea, in addition to the explicit benefits of the provisions, it will facilitate more frequent and meaningful communication between the two halves of the now divided peninsula and a gradual, rather than chaotic, path to unification.

Generally, the Agreed Framework obligates North Korea to:

  • eliminate its existing capability to produce weapons grade plutonium;
  • resume, after several years delay, full membership in the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, including the require- ment to comply completely with its safeguard agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), which mandates allowing IAEA inspectors to investigate suspected nuclear waste sites and to place any nuclear material not previously identified under IAEA safeguards.
  • consistently takesteps to execute the North-South Joint Declaration on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula; and
  • engage in North-South dialogue.

An international consortium led by the United States (Korea Energy Development Organization [KEDO] ), with South Korea and Japan paying most of the costs, will have provided North Korea with:

  • two 1,000 mw(e) lightwaterreactor (LWR) power plants, priced at some $4 billion; and
  • heavy oil, reaching 500,000 tons annually, to compensate for the capacity forfeited by North Korea by freezing its graphite-modulated reactors.

The United States and the DPRK each agreed to:

  • open liaison offices in the capital of the other, and
  • reduce barriers to trade and investment.

As of the end of February 1995, Pyongyang has complied scrupulously with technical aspects of the agreement, but has resisted the resumption of dialogue with Seoul. It also was threatening to reject the contract with KEDO, presumably to be presented in April, which will specify South Korean LWR power plants.

Washington?s obligations to implement the agreement would be challenging under the best of circumstances, when all the principal parties shared a broad political consensus. But only a limited consensus exists, with serious differing interpretations of several provisions of the Agreed Framework. Moreover, there may be significant political changes within all of the governments? United States, ROK, Japan, China, Russia, and the DPRK?involved in carrying out the agreement. Therefore, to see that North Korea?s nuclear weapons program is terminated, North-South dialogue is resumed, and all of the other requirements of the Agreed Framework are met, Washington necessarily will be involved in sensitive and extremely difficult negotiations. It must simultaneously be a mediator between the DPRK, a long-time enemy, and the ROK, a long time ally, and continue to be ally and friend of South Korea. How the United States performs this role will not only affect the global campaign against proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, North-South confrontation on the Korean peninsula, and regional stability, but also U.S. credibility among allies everywhere.


For the United States, the most important, immediate strategic consequence of the Agreed Framework negotiated with the DPRK, other than the gains in nonproliferation and regional stability, is that Washington is now at the center of the controversy between North and South Korea, one of the most enduring confrontations of the 20th century. It may be a temporary situation. If the promises of the agreement are all fulfilled in 2003 or thereabouts, stability will prevail on a nuclear-free Korean peninsula, and there will no longer be a need for a dominant?or perhaps any?U.S. role. If the promises of the agreement are not realized, the United States probably will revert to ally of South Korea?the familiar role of participant in this conflict spawned by the Cold War?rather than the unfamiliar task of mediating between long-standing enemy and long-standing friend.

Realistically, it is unlikely that either the Agreed Framework will be faithfully executed by all concerned or that it will fail because of the treachery of any one participant, be it the DPRK, ROK, or the United States itself. More likely, the Agreed Framework will be implemented imperfectly by all parties, and the process will be extended beyond the target date suggested by the negotiators. U.S. engagement as mediator between friend and enemy, democracy and totalitarian dictatorship, may continue well into the 21st century.

This extremely difficult?perhaps unprecedented?role is as important to fulfill as it is difficult. The way in which Washington carries out its responsibilities will influence the credibility of the NPT regime, regional stability, and the way in which North and South Korea approach unification. And it will also become a major factor in defining the overall international role of the United States in coming decades. If the United States can effectively oversee the successful implementation of the Agreed Framework, while at the same time honoring its obligations? especially the military ones?under the U.S.-ROK alliance and aggressively pursuing American economic interests within the region, it may be able to execute a strategy of engagement and enlargement well into the next century. On the other hand, unsuccessful and poorly coordinated activities will endanger the NPT, regional stability, and peaceful unification in Korea.

The most difficult obstacle is the intense hostility between Pyongyang and Seoul. Skillful diplomacy by the United States can assist in bringing the two sides together, but even if there are meetings there will be no genuine dialogue on substantive questions and certainly no agreements until the two antagonists desire it. Genuine substantive dialogue appears to be extremely unlikely now. The chances will probably increase when the leaders in the North feel more secure in their positions. The presence of new personalities in the South, which inevitably will occur after the presidential election in 1997, may also facilitate convening a new inter-Korean dialogue.

U.S. success in this unique international undertaking, with significant international, regional, and national implications, then, depends upon resolution, sustained attention, and diplomatic skill. However, the Agreed Framework process and the satisfaction of U.S. security objectives?not to mention the credibility of the United States as an ally?are, in part, held hostage to detente between Pyongyang and Seoul.