Christopher Lawrence suggests that the history of U.S. engagement with North Korea offers important lessons that could help reframe the diplomatic impasse today. In the 1994 Agreed Framework, North Korea agreed to dismantle its plutonium-production complex in exchange for Western light water reactors (LWRs), and the promise of political normalization with the United States. As construction of the LWRs fell behind, however, North Korea embarked on a secret uranium enrichment program. Today, we look back at the LWRs as the “carrot” of the Agreed Framework —“we offered the carrot, and they cheated anyway.” But when we consider the unique technical attributes of LWRs, and how their construction was planned to be situated within a diplomatic track to normalization, they appear to function more as a way to signal commitment than as a carrot to bribe the regime. In this light, chronic construction delays and the offset of LWR costs to U.S. allies can be interpreted as signals about America’s lack of commitment to normalization with North Korea. This conceptual shift—from carrots and sticks to signaling and credibility—offers important insights into past diplomatic failures, and could help reconcile the competing visions of engagement with North Korea today.

Christopher Lawrence is a fellow with the Belfer Center's International Security Program and Project on Managing the Atom. He earned his Ph.D. in nuclear science and engineering at the University of Michigan, where he developed novel neutron spectroscopy techniques to characterize nuclear warheads for treaty verification. After leaving Michigan, Christopher studied the history of North Korea's nuclear program as a Stanton Nuclear Security Fellow at Stanford's Center for International Security and Cooperation. He then became a fellow in Harvard's Program on Science, Technology, and Society, where he studied the role of commercial satellite imagery in the framing of public narratives about weapons of mass destruction.  A major focus of his work at the Belfer Center will be U.S. engagement with North Korea.