We often say that diplomatic engagement with North Korea is our only option for curtailing their nuclear weapons program. Equally frequent is a passing allusion to “years of failed attempts at engagement.” Is this true? Have we earnestly tried engagement for years, and has it been a total failure? In this talk, Lawrence examines a previous attempt to engage North Korea, and focus on the techno-political aspects of diplomacy. In the 1994 Agreed Framework (AF), the regime agreed to dismantle its emerging plutonium-production complex and renounce nuclear weapons, in exchange for western light water reactors (LWR) and the promise of normalization with the U.S. As construction of the LWRs fell behind, however, North Korea embarked on a secret uranium enrichment program. Today we look back at the LWRs of the AF as a “carrot” — “we offered the carrot, and they cheated anyway.” But when we consider the unique technical attributes of LWRs, and how their construction was situated within a diplomatic track to normalization, they appear to function more like a medium for signaling commitment than as a carrot to bribe the regime. In this light, chronic construction delays figure as candid signals about America’s lack of commitment to the AF. This conceptual shift — from carrots and sticks to signaling and credibility — offers important insights into past diplomatic failures and lessons for how we should think about engagement with North Korea in the future.

Chris Lawrence is a Visiting Research Fellow with the Program on Science, Technology and Society in Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. He is generally interested in questions of knowledge as they pertain to arms control and disarmament. While at Harvard, he will examine the making of open-source nuclear intelligence, and the role it plays in the framing of public narratives about weapons of mass destruction.

Chris received his PhD in nuclear science and engineering at University of Michigan, where he developed novel neutron-spectroscopy techniques to characterize nuclear warheads for treaty verification.  After finishing at Michigan, he was Stanton Nuclear Security Postdoctoral Fellow at the Center of International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University. There, he studied the history of North Korea’s pursuit of light water reactor technology, and the shifting role that pursuit played in its diplomacy.