FACT CHECK: Does North Korea Always Break Its Nuclear Promises?

Emily Larsen | Fact Check Reporter

Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado said that North Korea broke all of its past denuclearization promises. “North Korea has made a lot of promises, and they have reneged on every single one of those promises,” he said on “Face the Nation” Sunday.

Verdict: True

North Korea violated many public agreements that it had made to not develop nuclear weapons. After it developed those weapons anyway, it went back on its promises not to possess or test them.

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Following news that President Donald Trump will meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, Gardner urged caution in the U.S. approach to the talks. “What we have to do is to assure that we are in a different position than we were back in ’94, back in 2005, back in 2007, is to see concrete steps,” Gardner said.

The broken denuclearization promises go beyond the instances that Gardner referenced.

“North Korea signed four international agreements where they promised never to build nuclear weapons,” Bruce Klingner, a senior research fellow at the conservative Heritage Foundation and former CIA deputy division chief for Korea, told The Daily Caller News Foundation. “And then subsequent to that, they had four agreements promising to get rid of the weapons they promised never to build.”

Klingner said that past agreements failed in part because they were vague, verification processes were not sufficient and the U.S. provided concessions too soon.

The regime’s history of broken promises started in 1985 when it agreed to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. The treaty required that the country not receive or manufacture nuclear weapons or explosive devices and that it accept inspections and other safeguards to verify compliance. North Korea refused the safeguards and demanded that the U.S. remove its nuclear weapons from South Korea.

President George H.W. Bush met the demands and removed the weapons in 1991. Then in January 1992, the two Koreas signed a Joint Declaration of the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, where North Korea again promised not to receive or manufacture nuclear weapons or possess uranium enrichment facilities.

The international community struggled to enforce safeguard provisions over the next two years. North Korea initially refused to allow the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) to inspect its facilities. Satellite images showed that the regime attempted to disguise the purpose of two facilities, which seemed to store nuclear waste, with trees and other camouflage.

The regime finalized an inspection agreement with the IAEA in February 1994, but North Korea still would not let the inspection team adequately inspect its facilities. It withdrew from the agreement with the IAEA after a few months.

The U.S. managed to negotiate an “Agreed Framework” later in 1994. North Korea agreed to halt its construction of nuclear facilities and production of weapons-grade plutonium in exchange for the U.S. easing trade restrictions, supplying fuel, helping finance light-water nuclear power reactors and moving toward establishing diplomatic relations.

U.S.-North Korean relations remained stable for a while, but the Agreed Framework broke down in the early 2000s. The U.S. delayed easing sanctions for years and stopped supplying fuel, and the light-water power reactors were never built.

Some of the destabilization had to do with policy shifts during the U.S. transition of power from President Bill Clinton to President George W. Bush. Clinton canceled a trip to North Korea just before Bush took office. Bush stopped talks with North Korea, and famously declared it, Iran and Iraq an “axis of evil” in his first State of the Union address.

Most importantly, the U.S. assessed that North Korea was cheating on its Agreed Framework by trying to develop weapons-grade nuclear material through another method. “We had monitoring of all the eggs in one basket, but not the rest of the country,” Klingner said.

A few months after the U.S. confronted the regime, North Korea withdrew from the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty in 2003. Later in the year, it said that it would show its nuclear “deterrent” to the public “when an appropriate time comes.”

The U.S. seemed to make some diplomatic progress in a series of Six-Party Talks between North and South Korea, the U.S., Russia, China and Japan. As a result of the talks, North Korea said in 2005 it would stop pursuing nuclear weapons.

The talks hit a roadblock when the U.S. placed restrictions on Banco Delta Asia, a bank in Macau, which the U.S. suspected of laundering money to North Korea. The move angered the regime. North Korea tested what the U.S. thought were long-range ballistic missiles in 2006. The U.S. called the tests “provocative behavior” and a violation of its promises to not test missiles. A few months later, North Korea announced that it had completed its first nuclear test.

North Korea again agreed in 2007 to end all nuclear efforts. The six parties released a denuclearization action plan in February, and the Koreas issued a declaration in October to take steps towards reunification. The U.S. allowed the funds from Banco Delta Asia to be released in order to continue the talks. North Korea said it would disclose all of its nuclear programs by Dec. 31.

The regime missed the Dec. 31 deadline. It restarted the nuclear program by the end of 2008, tested missiles, held a nuclear test in 2009, sunk a South Korean navy ship and revealed a new uranium enrichment facility.

The U.S. and North Korea eventually resumed talks, and on Leap Day in 2012, North Korea agreed to suspend nuclear tests. But it tested a rocket later in 2012 and held a nuclear test in 2013. That prompted international condemnation and new U.N. sanctions.

North Korea did comply with some parts of the agreements that it made. It disabled the Yongbyon nuclear plant, for example. “They carried through on some parts [of the agreements], but the big part of ‘I-shall-not-build-nuclear-weapons,’ they broke,” said Klingner.

Though the agreements ultimately failed, the Agreed Framework “did freeze or cap the plutonium program so that they did not finish construction of two larger reactors,” Klingner said. Had North Korea not done that, the intelligence community estimates that the regime would have had a lot more nuclear weapons than it does now.

Since 2012, North Korea says it has successfully tested submarine-launched ballistic missiles, intercontinental ballistic missiles and nuclear bombs. The U.S. and the U.N. have imposed stricter sanctions on North Korea.

Klingner says that Trump should be cautious moving forward with talks and learn from the past. He says that any agreement with North Korea should be longer than previous agreements and more specific, like the arms control treaties with Russia.

There should be sufficient verification processes to ensure that North Korea complies with agreements, he said, and all sanctions should be kept in place until North Korea’s behavior changes. Gardner and other senators have also urged Trump to continue the “maximum pressure campaign.”

“Don’t give them a door prize just for showing up,” Klingner said.

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Emily Larsen

Fact Check Reporter