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Senior Fellow, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace
April 15, 2019
Bush Challenges North Korean Adherence to Nuclear Freeze

Alex Wagner

For the first time since North Korea agreed to freeze its nuclear program in 1994, the White House indicated March 20 that it would not certify to Congress that Pyongyang is abiding by the terms of the deal, citing its resistance to open itself up fully to international weapons inspections.

Under the 1994 nuclear accord, known as the Agreed Framework, Pyongyang agreed to freeze and ultimately dismantle its nuclear program in exchange for two civilian nuclear power reactors. U.S. law requires the president to certify each year that North Korea is fully complying with the Agreed Framework before Congress can fund implementation of the accord, which obligates the United States to provide North Korea with 500,000 tons of heavy fuel oil annually, pending completion of the first nuclear plant.

White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said that President George W. Bush had accepted a State Department recommendation not to certify North Korean compliance, an action that would cut off U.S. funding for the deal. However, Fleischer also announced that Bush planned to waive the certification requirement, a step the president can take in the interest of U.S. national security, to maintain Washington’s support for the deal.

Fleischer called the move “a strong message to North Korea that they need to comply with their international obligations and agreements” although he acknowledged that “as a result of the waiver,” the administration’s action will not affect implementation of the Agreed Framework.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher emphasized that not certifying North Korea’s compliance was not tantamount to accusing Pyongyang of violating the deal. At a March 20 briefing, he said that the State Department’s recommendation was based on concerns that there was insufficient information about the status of the nuclear freeze and on Pyongyang’s resistance to permit comprehensive inspections. Boucher said that “the goal of this process…is to encourage North Korea to begin full cooperation with the International Atomic Energy Agency [IAEA], as is required under the Agreed Framework.”

The framework commits North Korea to grant IAEA inspectors the right to visit any suspected nuclear-related site so that the agency can fully account for how much nuclear material Pyongyang produced before 1994 and determine whether it is hiding any such material today. However, North Korea is not required to provide such access until “a significant portion” of the first of the two nuclear reactors promised in the Agreed Framework has been completed—a milestone the United States acknowledges has not yet been reached.

Administration officials maintain that Pyongyang needs to allow inspections now because “a significant portion” of the first reactor is expected to be completed in 2005 and the IAEA needs three to four years to complete its accounting of North Korea’s past nuclear activities. North Korea has resisted because it doubts the Bush administration’s commitment to implementing its obligations under the framework, citing the rhetoric of long-time congressional and administration critics of the deal. Washington’s latest action is not likely to ameliorate Pyongyang’s concerns.

Certification of North Korean compliance with the Agreed Framework is only one requirement in the 2002 Foreign Operations Appropriations Act, which provides funding for the deal. The law also requires that Pyongyang continue implementing the 1991 North-South Joint Declaration on Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula—to which the United States is not a party—and that the United States make “significant progress” on eliminating North Korea’s indigenous missile program and missile exports.

According to the State Department, Pyongyang has not satisfied these conditions either, although the latter appears to require U.S., not North Korean, action.

Although North Korea has continued its daily denouncements of U.S. nuclear policy and the Bush administration, it has yet to respond specifically to Bush’s decision not to certify its compliance with the Agreed Framework.