35+ Years of Freedom of Information Action

The United States and the North Korea Nuclear Threat

The first Trump-Kim summt in Singapore, June 12, 2018

Published: Feb 26, 2019
Briefing Book #664

By Robert A. Wampler, Ph.D.

For more information, contact:
202-994-7000 or nsarchiv@gwu.edu

U.S. Attempts to Blunt North Korea’s Nuclear Threat Have a Complex History

Republican and Democratic Presidents Shared Concerns over Nukes and Regional Instability

Declassified Records Reflect Military, Economic, and Diplomatic Challenges

Washington D.C., February 26, 2019 – Prior U.S. administrations from both political parties wrestled intensively with complex security, economic, and diplomatic challenges in trying to rein in successive North Korean dictators’ nuclear ambitions, a review of declassified documentation makes clear. Today, the National Security Archive at The George Washington University presents an array of records from the Nixon, Bush 41, and Clinton administrations that describe the many concerns and tests that have confronted U.S. policymakers and negotiators alike.

These records provide essential historical context for the upcoming February 27-28 meeting in Hanoi between President Donald J. Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un. They underscore the recognition that war with North Korea would mean immense casualties; the concern of officials such as Defense Secretary Dick Cheney that diplomatic strategy not be jeopardized by discussions of military action; the realization that bilateral diplomacy had to go hand-in-hand with multilateral negotiations; the recognition that China’s critical role cannot be overlooked; and the awareness that the larger question of stability on the Korean peninsula and the wider region would inevitably encompass non-nuclear concerns as well, notably the economic viability of the North.

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The United States and the North Korea Nuclear Threat

By Robert A. Wampler, Ph.D.

President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un will hold their second summit meeting in Hanoi, Vietnam on February 27-28, 2019. Their first summit, held in Singapore on June 12, 2018, produced a joint statement expressing agreement to work on new relations between the two countries and “complete denuclearization” of the Korean peninsula, but with little in the way of specifics as to how these aspirations would be attained. Since the first summit, Trump’s own intelligence community has continued to warn that North Korea has not halted work on its nuclear weapons or missile technology programs, despite Tweets from the President claiming success for his personal diplomacy with Kim Jong Un, and expressing disdain for the findings of the intelligence community. On the eve of the summit, both administration officials and North Korea experts have been reported to express concern that Trump, in his eagerness to make the summit a success, may make concessions such as agreeing to the withdrawal of U.S. troops from South Korea.

Efforts to implement the Singapore agreement have also proven difficult to achieve, whether in terms of what each side means by “denuclearization,” or the linkages between steps each side needs to take, be it normalization of relations and the easing of sanctions by Washington, or verifiable steps by Pyongyang to begin dismantling its nuclear weapons and missile programs. Similar obstacles will likely face any agreement coming from the Hanoi summit.

In order to provide some essential historical context for the Trump-Kim summit and a better understanding of how previous administrations have sought to tackle the complex diplomacy surrounding efforts to reduce the North Korean nuclear and missile threat, the National Security Archive’s Korea Project is posting today a selection of declassified documents taken from previous Electronic Briefing Books dating back to 2003. These eleven postings cover U.S. efforts to meet North Korea’s military threat from the Nixon through the Clinton administrations. Links to these earlier postings, which also provide more detailed discussion of the historical context of the documents, can be found in the sidebar on this webpage.  Among the key points in these materials:

  • The high probability that any military action against North Korea would be difficult to contain and would result in casualties on an immense scale, with Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney at one point arguing that discussion of possible military action should not be allowed to endanger diplomatic efforts to halt North Korea’s nuclear program [Documents 1, 2, 6-C-2, 10, and 23]
  • The critical role China must play in diplomatic negotiations to move North Korea away from its nuclear ambitions [Documents 4, 9, and 26]
  • The challenging interplay of bilateral and multilateral diplomacy involving the U.S., South Korea, Japan, and China as they have sought to orchestrate their engagement with North Korea with the proper mix of carrots and sticks [Documents 5, 6, 14, 16, and 21]
  • The emergence of concerns in the late 1990s that North Korea might be on the brink of economic collapse, and what this could mean for stability and security on the peninsula, as well as possibly providing leverage in negotiations with North Korea [Documents 15, 18 and 19]
  • The attention to detail combined with sensitivity to nuance and unknowns that have marked intelligence assessments of the situation inside North Korea. [Documents 11 and 12]

As these documents make clear, diplomacy aimed at ending North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats is a complex and challenging undertaking. The old saying that the devil is in the details will certainly apply here: any substantial agreement with Pyongyang will have to master the finer points of aligning strategic interests and goals not just between the United States and North Korea, but also involving South Korea, Japan, and China.


The documents

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Document 26
Cable, Amembassy Beijing 010155 to Ruech/Secstate, October 29, 1999, Subject: U/S Pickering's October 28 Lunch with Chinese VFM Yang Jiechi: International Issues and More on Taiwan, (Confidential).
Source: Freedom of Information Act release

This cable, which reports on a wide-ranging discussion between Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Thomas Pickering and Chinese Vice-Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi, includes a briefing Pickering gave Yang on the Perry Report, plans for a high-level DPRK visit to Washington, and the Four Power talks (pages 5-7). Stressing that reducing tensions on the Korean peninsula was in the interests of the U.S. and China, Pickering reminded Yang that, as State Department Counselor Wendy Sherman had told the Chinese charge in Washington, the recently-released Perry Report recommended that U.S. policy toward North Korea should become "more comprehensive and integrated." To this end, the U.S. should work to normalize relations with North Korea at a faster rate as Pyongyang took steps to address Washington's concerns about its nuclear and missile programs.

For its part, North Korea had agreed to a missile test moratorium while discussions with the U.S. proceeded, while the U.S. had eased sanctions, though this step could be reversed. Whereas the U.S. hoped North Korea would work with it to reduce tensions on the peninsula, Washington had to be ready to pursue other options if the DPRK did not cooperate. The U.S. would also continue to carry out the Agreed Framework agreement at the same time as it sought verifiable assurances from North Korea that it was not pursuing a nuclear weapons program.

As all these processes unfolded, Pickering said that Washington would continue to consult with Beijing and appreciated China's efforts to "counsel Pyongyang to exercise restraint." Regarding next steps, Pickering told Yang that the Berlin talks between the U.S. and North Korea in September had laid the basis for a high-level DPRK visit to the U.S., a visit which the U.S. felt North Korea was taking very seriously. These bilateral developments in turn helped to improve the atmosphere for the Four Party Talks, which the U.S. hoped would resume by the end of the year. Pickering noted that a draft treaty tabled by China at the last round of talks would serve as a useful basis for future discussion, and expressed appreciation for the "depth and strength" of Beijing's participation in these talks.

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Document 27
Memorandum, Roy to Secretary of State Albright, Subject: Pyongyang at the Summit, June 16, 2000
Source: Freedom of Information Act release

In this memorandum, Stapleton Roy attempts to provide Secretary of State Albright with some historical perspective on the historic North-South summit in Pyongyang. His basic argument is that while there was much that was new in the summit, “Pyongyang is carrying out policies that have been much discussed in the leadership and, in some cases, were formulated and partially deployed years ago. What appears to be a new, more lively North Korean approach is really a return to familiar patterns, temporarily suspended after the death of Kim Il Sung. … The North Koreans have survived, independent and prickly, among their larger neighbors precisely because they have not had an ideologically rigid foreign policy. On the contrary, the policy has reacted to changing circumstances in and around the peninsula. Kim Jong Il was a party to that policy for many years, indeed, he helped shape it” The rest of the memorandum provides Roy’s evidence for this argument, citing events going back to the 1980s.