35+ Years of Freedom of Information Action

Engaging North Korea: Evidence from the Bush I Administration

Published: Nov 8, 2017
Briefing Book #610

Edited by Robert A Wampler, PhD

For more information contact: Robert A. Wampler, 202/994-7000 or wampler@gwu.edu

Defense Secretary Dick Cheney Told Allies Military Force Could Jeopardize Initial Diplomatic Strategy with Pyongyang

Declassified Documents Underscore Delicate Balancing Act with Seoul to Align Political, Diplomatic and Security Interests

Washington, D.C., November 8, 2017 – The George H.W. Bush administration understood North Korea might be negotiating in bad faith in the early 1990s, yet concluded that negotiations were the best way to resolve the nuclear crisis on the Korean Peninsula, according to documents posted today by The George Washington University-based National Security Archive.

The documents provide valuable historical context for U.S. policymakers as President Donald J. Trump travels to Asia to engage with allies over the North Korean nuclear threat.  Many of the issues being confronted today echo those U.S. strategists faced two decades ago. 

For example, one of the questions the Bush I administration debated was the advisability of military force.  But even Defense Secretary Dick Cheney rejected the option, telling South Korean and Japanese leaders they should not consider "military measures" since "such discussion could jeopardize our initial diplomatic strategy," according to a high-level internal briefing book. 

On the matter of China's motives, American policymakers were candid enough to acknowledge their uncertainty but did conclude that Beijing was unlikely to do anything that might threaten the regime in Pyongyang.

U.S. negotiating strategy included developing “nooses” to tighten around North Korea if it continued to delay, while understanding the importance of preparing the ground for multilateral coercive measures even as talks went ahead.

The documents in today's posting were obtained through the Freedom of Information Act.


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Engaging North Korea: Evidence from the Bush I Administration

By Robert A. Wampler PhD


A quarter-century ago, President George H. W. Bush enacted a signal change in U.S. military policy by withdrawing from the field all U.S. tactical nuclear weapons, including from South Korea.[1] This bold initiative set the stage for a challenging diplomatic push with South Korea and other allies to press North Korea to accept an agreement that would create a Korean peninsula free of nuclear weapons. In documents posted today, the nongovernmental National Security Archive seeks to shed new light on this important diplomatic initiative.

Among the important points made in the documents:

  • Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney told South Korean and Japanese leaders that the U.S. should not consider “military measures” against North Korea as such discussion could jeopardize the current diplomatic strategy aimed at a denuclearized Korean peninsula. [Document 7-C-2]
  • Washington had to pursue a delicate balancing act with Seoul to align political, diplomatic, and security interests in the talks with North Korea, with both sides at times worried about the right combination of carrots and sticks to use with Pyongyang. [Documents 2, 4, 5, 6]
  • South Korea felt that growing economic problems in North Korea provided an opportunity to “continue to tighten the screws” on Pyongyang to open up its regime and move forward on bilateral agreements that could address the nuclear issue [Document 5].
  • The Pentagon was concerned in late 1991 that the “gameplan” proposed by the State Department for initiating high-level talks with North Korea on the nuclear issue was too “forward-leaning” in holding up the prospect of normalized relations between the U.S. and the DPRK. [Document 7-C]
  • The role that Beijing could play in pressing North Korea is a frequent refrain, but tempered by the fact that the U.S. was not “absolutely certain of PRC motives … and it is unlikely they would be prepared to take any measures they perceived as putting the survival of the Pyongyang regime in question.” [Documents 2, 7-C-2, 9]
  • A constant refrain is the sober appreciation that North Korea may be negotiating in bad faith, and that the grounds for international and unilateral coercive steps to pressure North Korea must be laid even as the U.S. and South Korea pushed forward with the nuclear talks. As concern grew in early 1992 that North Korea might be stalling on ratification of its IAEA safeguards agreement, a Deputies’ Committee meeting in February took up the question of the “nooses” available to tighten around the North Koreans if they continued to stall. [Document 7, 8, 9, 10 and 11]

These and other points made by the documents are all the more important with President Donald Trump embarking on the longest visit by a U.S. president to Asia in a generation (since President Bush’s trip in January 1992). The Bush I initiative must be seen in light of President Trump’s recent statements about North Korea. President Trump is facing a renewed crisis over North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile programs, and in statements and tweets that have aroused grave concerns at home and abroad he has denigrated prior diplomatic efforts to rein in Pyongyang’s nuclear ambitions and suggested that the time has come for a military solution.[2]

As these documents show, the Bush I administration engaged in no “wishful thinking” about North Korea in launching its effort in 1991-1992, but on the contrary was constantly aware of the possibility, if not the probability, that Pyongyang would negotiate in bad faith or seek loopholes in any nuclear inspection agreement it signed. With this in mind, the Bush administration pursued a dual track approach that combined efforts to bring North Korea to a nuclear agreement with preparations to “tighten the noose” on Pyongyang if it delayed meeting its commitment to accept IAEA inspections of its nuclear facilities. The U.S. strategy was grounded in the need to align U.S. goals and approach with its key allies in the region, South Korea and Japan, and the effort to bring Beijing’s influence to bear on North Korea. The latter consideration, while always viewed as important if not essential, was also colored by the realization that China’s motives were never entirely clear, though no one believed China would take steps that would result in the downfall of the North Korean regime. Finally, it is significant that the U.S. expressly took military action off the table, as this could work counter to its diplomatic efforts

Some brief historical background is useful in reading these documents.[3] As noted, in September 1991, George H. W. Bush announced the withdrawal of all U.S. tactical nuclear weapons from the field. This provided the foundation for launching a major diplomatic initiative to secure North Korea’s assent to agreements that would ban nuclear reprocessing and enrichment, and by extension nuclear weapons, from the Korea peninsula. This set in train the ongoing consultations with South Korea discussed in the documents, and led to South Korea President Roh Tae Woo announcing on November 8, 1991, the Declaration on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, under which Seoul renounced the production, possession, storage, deployment, and use of nuclear weapons. Subsequent North/South discussions led to the two Korean prime ministers signing on December 13 the “Joint Agreement on Reconciliation, Nonaggression, Cooperation and Exchanges.” This was followed by the two Koreas signing on December 31 the South-North Joint Declaration on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, under which both sides agreed to abide by Roh’s non-nuclear principles as well as to forego nuclear reprocessing or uranium enrichment facilities. On January 30, 1992, North Korea reached a nuclear safeguards agreement with the IAEA, which Pyongyang ratified on April 9, 1992. However, the hopes raised by this succession of agreements faded as suspicions grew that North Korea might be hiding parts of its nuclear weapons program from inspectors, and as IAEA inspectors reported discrepancies in North Korea’s reports, particularly with respect to how much plutonium it had processed.

As the Bush I administration neared its end, the hopes engendered by North Korea’s seeming movement toward creating a nuclear weapons-free Korean peninsula in late 1991 and early 1992 were waning in light of the developments summarized above. The growing concerns about North Korea’s willingness to abide fully by its IAEA commitments would hang fire as the Clinton administration entered office, but would soon grow into a major crisis that led Washington to seriously consider military action against North Korea’s nuclear facilities; they would only be resolved by the 1994 Framework Agreement between the U.S. and North Korea. Still, for a brief period, there had been the possibility that the threat posed by North Korea’s nuclear weapons program might be eliminated by diplomacy. As these documents demonstrate, however, U.S. diplomacy was always tempered by a sober awareness of the pitfalls and challenges, not least the likelihood that North Korea might refuse to live up to its commitments. 




[1] See National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book Numberive 561, Unilateral U.S. nuclear pullback in 1991 matched by rapid Soviet cuts, September 30, 2016, available at https://nsarchive.gwu.edu/briefing-book/nuclear-vault-russia-programs/2016-09-30/unilateral-us-nuclear-pullback-1991-matched

[2] See for example “Breakdown in North Korea Talks Sounds Alarms on Capitol Hill,” by Leigh Ann Caldwell and Vivian Salama, October 25, 2017, NBC News online, available at https://www.nbcnews.com/news/north-korea/lack-talks-north-korea-sounds-alarms-capitol-hill-n813951. Trump’s secretaries of state and defense have publicly called for diplomacy before military action in dealing with North Korea; see the NBC article above as well as “Mattis Visit to DMZ Highlights the North Korean Threat to Seoul,” by Helene Cooper, October 27, 2017, The New York Times.  See also National Security Archive Electronic Briefing Book # 322, "How Do You Solve a Problem Like Korea?", June 23, 2010, and the resulting media coverage in "Related Links" in the left column of this posting, above. 

[3] This overview draws on Don Oberforfer’s The Two Koreas: A Contemporary History (Basic Books, 1997, 2001), pp, 255-271; and a chronology of U.S.-Korean relations found in The United States and the Two Koreas, 1969-2000, Guide and Index, The National Security Archive ( Chadwyck-Healey, 2011), pp. 39-40.

[4] Oberdorfer, The Two Koreas, pp. 258-260.

[5] U.S. Decides to Withdraw A-Weapons From S. Korea By Don Oberdorfer, The Washington Post, October 19, 1991

[6] See the ACA chronology available at https://www.armscontrol.org/factsheets/dprkchron.