Normalization by Other Means — The Failed Techno-diplomacy of Light Water Reactor Export in the North Korean Nuclear Crisis

Harvard Kennedy School Belfer Center

One Brattle Square - Room 350, 79 John F. Kennedy Street, Cambridge, MA 02138

February 14, 2019, 12:15 pm to 2:00 pm

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 (AF), the regime agreed to dismantle its plutonium-production complex in exchange for western light water reactors (LWR) 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, scholars and policymakers look back at the LWRs of the AF as a "carrot" — "we offered the carrot, and they cheated anyway." But when scholars and policymakers 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.

Coffee and tea provided. Admittance will be on a first come–first served basis.

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