Is a Nuclear Freeze an Option for North Korea?

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Is a Nuclear Freeze an Option for North Korea?

Lessons from the Agreed Framework show the International Atomic Energy Agency must play a key role in any deal.

Is a Nuclear Freeze an Option for North Korea?
Credit: Wikimedia Commons/ W. Keith Luse

The DPRK’s current nuclear posture has left the world with little hope for denuclearization on the Korean Peninsula. The Six-Party Talks are dead and the DPRK (commonly known as North Korea) now insists on “arms control talks” with the United States, in which the DPRK is viewed as a nuclear weapons state.

In response, there have been some voices calling for a different approach in the United States and South Korea. In October 2016, James Clapper, U.S. director of national intelligence, claimed that getting the DPRK to give up its nuclear weapons is probably “a lost cause.” In September 2016, Sim Sang Jung, a member of the Korean National Assembly, stated that the world should focus on freezing the DPRK’s nuclear program by providing economic incentives based on a “new Perry process.” While U.S. President-elect Donald Trump’s foreign policy toward the DPRK has yet to be shaped, he stated his willingness to talk to Kim Jong-un in May 2016, leading some to suggest that he may be prepared to negotiate a “grand bargain” with the DPRK.

If the United States and South Korea are going to contemplate a “freeze” as a possible option for slowing down the DPRK’s efforts, it is important to remember the lessons learned from the implementation of the Agreed Framework of 1994.

The Impact of Agreed Framework

Under the Agreed Framework, the DPRK agreed to freeze its five significant nuclear facilities, remain as a party to the Treaty on the Non-proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT), and come into full compliance with International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) safeguards. In return, the United States promised to make efforts to normalize relations with the DPRK, organize a project constructing two light water reactors (LWRs) in the DPRK, and provide a supply of heavy oil until the LWRs become operational.

While many accusations have been made regarding the failure of the Agreed Framework, not much attention is given to what happened between the IAEA and the DPRK. Yet recognizing that part of the story is critical to the success of any future strategy that would include a “freeze” on the DPRK’s nuclear activities.

First, the ambiguity in the Agreed Framework undermined the IAEA’s authority to implement the DPRK’s Comprehensive Safeguards Agreement (INFCIRC/403). The Agreed Framework stipulated that the DPRK would come into full compliance with its safeguards agreement when a significant portion of LWR construction was done, but before the delivery of key components of the LWRs to the DPRK. The Agreed Framework also included a provision for the IAEA to conduct ad hoc and routine inspections on the facilities “not subject to the freeze,” which are not as significant as the five nuclear facilities. Meanwhile, the DPRK claimed that implementation of INFCIRC/403 was contingent on the progress in the Agreed Framework and provided the IAEA with limited access and information, making it impossible for the Agency to implement the DPRK’s safeguards agreement, which was still legally valid.

Undermining the authority of the IAEA has made restoring the DPRK’s nuclear history a nearly impossible task. Delaying the IAEA’s verification of the DPRK’s nuclear history let the DPRK possibly eliminate or change information essential for such verification. The DPRK never allowed the IAEA to measure the amount of plutonium reprocessed before signing INFCIRC/403 and refused the IAEA’s request to install monitoring equipment at the nuclear waste tank in the reprocessing plant. Consequently, the IAEA couldn’t verify that the nuclear waste was not altered, moved, or removed while it was only allowed to observe the “freeze” of the facilities included under the Agreed Framework.

In the early 2000s, the IAEA estimated it would take three to four years to verify the DPRK’s nuclear materials and place safeguard measures on its nuclear facilities. When it requested the DPRK cooperate without further delay, as it was imperative to ensure the DPRK’s compliance with its safeguards agreement before the completion of LWR construction in the mid-2000s, the DPRK rejected the request, citing stalled progress in the Agreed Framework as the reason.

Since then, the DPRK has conducted five nuclear tests, modified its nuclear facilities, and built new facilities, including a uranium enrichment plant.

A Reshaped Approach to a “Freeze”

What lessons can be learned from the experience with the Agreed Framework? First, we should refrain from excessively incentivizing a DPRK “freeze” on its nuclear activities since a “freeze” is not going to give the value hoped for in the Agreed Framework. If, as the DPRK claims, its nuclear weapons are already “miniaturized,” capable of fusion explosions, and “standardized,” then additional testing is less valuable for the DPRK than before — even though Pyongyang may try to demand a high price for a moratorium on nuclear tests. Also, given the shortened time gap between the two nuclear tests conducted this year, we can assume that the DPRK’s fissile material production has been expanded. In addition, a verifiable “freeze” might be only imposed on facilities not designed for military purposes. In other words, a substantial amount of nuclear materials and a broad scope of activities could be left out of coverage under a “freeze.” Therefore, significant incentives should not be provided to the DPRK for a “freeze,” but should be offered only when there is a meaningful progress toward disarmament.

Second, it is vital to include the IAEA in the negotiation process with the DPRK, even if only in an advisory role. The IAEA will be responsible for verifying the denuclearization process in the DPRK and for implementing the CSA if or when the DPRK eventually returns to the NPT. Therefore, we should avoid a similar situation in which the IAEA’s credibility and international nonproliferation norms are challenged, as this could lead to another failure with far greater frustration. The participation of the IAEA in negotiations can help avoid exploitable ambiguities in a possible agreement with the DPRK. Consultation with the IAEA can contribute to enhancing clarity in terms and conditions and to making them consistent with future safeguards measures.

Third, it is necessary to redefine or modify the meaning of “freeze.” The Agreed Framework did not prevent the DPRK from diverting nuclear materials and engaging in nuclear activities prohibited under INFCIRC/403. The DPRK modified the nuclear facilities that were once subject to safeguards under the CSA and built new facilities that have never been subject to safeguards. To ensure an up-to-date picture of nuclear materials and facilities in the DPRK, any “freeze” agreement should include IAEA item-specific safeguards (INFCIRC/66/Rev.2), similar to the cases of India, Pakistan, and Israel. Until the DPRK renounces its military-related nuclear activities and comes back to the NPT, imposing INFCIRC/66 type safeguards on the DPRK’s nuclear facilities will have to be part of any “freeze” agreement.


As the quote goes, “The only real mistake is the one from which we learn nothing.” For all the drawbacks of the Agreed Framework, its proponents used to claim that there needed to be a trade-off for freezing the DPRK’s nuclear program, given the sense of urgency in between 1992 and 1994 and the DPRK’s intransigent position in the negotiation process. However, for those who are considering a “freeze” as an option this time around, it is important to reform their strategy by including the IAEA in the negotiation process, refraining from providing the DPRK with excessive incentives, and redefining the term. Otherwise, “freeze” proponents will let their efforts made in the past be a “real mistake.”

Hyuk Kim is a resident fellow for Nonproliferation and Nuclear Security and James A. Kelly Korean Studies programs. Prior to joining Pacific Forum CSIS, Mr. Kim served as a guest researcher at the Dual-use and Arms Trade Control Program of Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, research assistant at the Export Control and Non-proliferation Program of the James Martin Center for Non-proliferation Studies, and international trader at Daewoo International Corporation.