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These assorted nay-sayers do not exactly have a great record of success, however. Indeed, the most vociferous critics of Trump’s move happen to be negotiators and Asia hands in the Clinton and Obama administrations, who did not cover themselves with glory when they were the ones seeking to terminate, or at least freeze, North Korea’s nuclear programme. When Bill Clinton took office, his main objective was to counter nuclear proliferation, but he was frustrated early in his first term when in February 1993 North Korea refused to allow an inspection by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and then a month later announced that it would withdraw from the Non-Proliferation Treaty. Clinton, determined to resolve the crisis through diplomacy, unofficially offered the North Koreans economic aid and diplomatic normalisation if they would reverse their policies regarding the IAEA and the NPT. When Pyongyang suspended its threatened withdrawal from the IAEA, Washington agreed to bilateral talks with the North. The talks led nowhere.

In May 1994, when the Yongbyon reactor completed its fuel cycle, Pyongyang announced yet again that it was withdrawing from the NPT and ordered IAEA inspectors to leave. William Perry, Secretary of Defense during Clinton’s first term and perhaps the most level-headed senior official in the Clinton administration, considered a military strike against the North Korean facilities but decided against it due to the likelihood that hundreds of thousands of South Koreans would lose their lives in a counterattack. Meanwhile, former President Jimmy Carter met with Kim Il-sung and obtained his agreement to resume negotiations with the US, which in turn led to the 1994 Agreed Framework. This arrangement called for North Korea to freeze activity at Yongbyon indefinitely, and eventually dismantle the facility. Pyongyang also agreed both to allow IAEA inspectors full access to its nuclear facilities when they became operational and to resume talks with the South. In return, the United States committed itself to oversee construction of two light-water reactors; to join Japan and South Korea in footing the $4 billion cost of construction; and to provide Pyongyang with crude oil while the facilities were being built. Significantly, the agreement did not address the question of whether Pyongyang already had nuclear weapons. It only sought to restrain future nuclear activity.

In 1998 the flaws in the agreement became very obvious as Pyongyang tested a long-range ballistic missile whose use made no sense other than if it carried a nuclear warhead. With time running out on Clinton’s days in office, the administration tried to revive the Agreed Framework, but its efforts ended in failure. By 2002 it was clear that North Korea had never stopped developing nuclear weapons, having continued its nuclear work at a secret facility. In response, the George W. Bush administration cut off the fuel oil that the US had been sending to the North under the Agreed Framework, and persuaded Japan and South Korea to cease working on the light-water reactors. North Korea reacted by ejecting IAEA inspectors yet again and reopening the Yongbyon facility. The Agreed Framework was dead, and the military option, which might have succeeded in 1994, no longer seemed as viable.
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