Did the U.S. Really Pay North Korea 'Extortion Money' for 25 Years? Fact-Checking Trump's Tweet

Donald Trump
President Donald Trump wrote a puzzling tweet claiming the U.S. had been paying "extortion money" to North Korea for 25 years. Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

President Donald Trump dedicated his first tweet of the day on Wednesday to the ongoing tensions on the Korean Peninsula, claiming that "talking is not the answer" in dealing with the North Korean regime.

"The U.S. has been talking to North Korea, and paying them extortion money, for 25 years. Talking is not the answer!" he wrote.

The statement is puzzling as it contradicts multiple statements by Pentagon and State Department officials who champion diplomatic efforts over military action, but also because of its reference to "extortion money" being paid "for 25 years."

Fact-checking this statement means unpacking the three claims contained within it: that the U.S. has been talking to North Korea for 25 years, that the U.S. has been somehow financially supporting North Korea for 25 years, and that talks have been inconclusive.

Diplomatic Efforts Begin in 1993

Let's go back some 25 years. At the end of 1991, North and South Korea had signed an agreement binding them to work towards the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, and the following year Pyongyang concluded a comprehensive safeguards agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency and took steps to disclose information about its nuclear program.

But following IAEA demand for special inspections, North Korea suddenly changed direction, threatening to withdraw its membership in the agency it joined in 1974.

It was on June 2, 1993 that the U.S. first put together a negotiating team under the leadership of Assistant Secretary of State Robert L. Gallucci at the U.S. United Nations Mission in New York to meet a North Korean delegation.

That was the beginning of a complex and sometimes extremely tense relationship. After nine days, the U.S. and North Korea issued a first joint statement in which the U.S. granted assurances against the use of force and interference in Pyongyang's affairs, while North Korea renewed its commitment to the IAEA and its inspectors.

The crisis was averted through talks but this lasted only for about a year and in June 1994 North Korea again announced its withdrawal from the IAEA. This crisis prompted former President Jimmy Carter to get involved.

U.S. Aid 1995–2008, With Some Interruptions

Carter went to Pyongyang against President Bill Clinton's wishes and negotiated an agreement that laid the basis for Trump's claims of money paid to North Korea. Clinton would eventually agree to the Carter deal, signing the Agreed Framework in October 1994. This involved lifting sanctions in exchange for aid in the form of 500,000 tons of oil a year and $4 billion toward the construction of a light-water reactor capable of producing nuclear energy (but no nuclear weapons), and establishing the multilateral consortium Korean Peninsula Energy Development Organization. In exchange, Pyongyang would abandon its the nuclear development programme and collaborate with the IAEA inspections.

"Although criticized by some for not resolving every issue on the Korean Peninsula, the Agreed Framework ended the immediate crisis and prevented the North from realizing its potential to develop dozens of nuclear bombs," recalled Madeleine Albright, who was U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations at the time the deal was negotiated, in her memoir about her time as Secretary of State, Madam Secretary.

The deal was never fully implemented and, despite several rounds of talks with the U.S., North Korea eventually restarted its nuclear weapons program. By 2003 the deal was completely abandoned when North Korea admitted having a clandestine program to enrich uranium for nuclear weapons. The U.S. continued to hold talks with North Korea under the six-party talks framework that involved China, Japan, Russia and South Korea and a certain amount of aid continued to be delivered to Pyongyang in various forms.

A new agreement was signed in 2005 in which Pyongyang pledged to scrap its nuclear program in exchange for economic and energy aid. That deal finally unraveled in 2008, as Reuters mentioned in 2013 in an article Trump should be aware of, as he shared it on Twitter at the time.

According to a 2014 report from the Congressional Research Service, between 1995 and 2008, the United States provided North Korea with more than $1.3 billion in aid: slightly more than 50 percent for food and about 40 percent for energy assistance.

But since early 2009 the U.S. has provided "virtually no aid to North Korea, though episodically there have been discussions about resuming large-scale food aid." Diplomatic efforts too have mostly been limited to a mechanism known as the "New York channel," sending messages to one another through their U.N. delegations—most recently discussing Americans detained in North Korea, as CNN reported earlier this month.

Negotiation Success

The fraught diplomatic relationship between North Korea and the U.S. has had its share of highs and lows. Serving as secretary of state under President Clinton, Albright made a historic visit to Pyongyang in 2000. Under the administration of President George W. Bush, assistant secretary of state James Kelly also visited in October 2002.

While North Korea did not uphold its commitment to denuclearization and continued a clandestine uranium enrichment program, it did not test any missiles between 1993–1998 and again between 1999–2005, periods when the U.S. was providing assistance and engaging in intense diplomatic efforts.

"The aid lines up with the diplomatic processes and in the absence of those diplomatic processes, in the absence of aid, that's when the North Koreans have been feisty," Joshua Pollack, editor of The Nonproliferation Review and a senior research associate at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies tells Newsweek. "All the [missile test launches] happened after we stopped doing diplomacy with them, after we stopped giving aid."

President Trump's own cabinet members are aware of the importance of ongoing diplomatic efforts, with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis stating ahead of a meeting with his South Korean counterpart that the U.S. was not out of diplomatic solutions with North Korea, Reuters reported Wednesday.

The president has recently made several tough-sounding statements aimed at North Korea, warning of "locked and loaded" military solutions, "fire and fury," stating that the time for "patience is over," but repeatedly refusing to discuss the U.S. strategy.

Our President must be very careful with the 28 year old wack job in North Korea. At some point we may have to get very tough-blatant threats

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 6, 2013

Trump has been advocating "tough" solutions since 2013. At the time, he also repeatedly questioned South Korea's financial compensation for America's engagement in the peninsula, despite the fact the two countries share a mutual defense agreement.

I ask again, how much is very wealthy South Korea paying the United States for protecting it against North Korea?

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 2, 2013

According to the president, "very wealthy economic competitor" South Korea paid "nothing" for U.S. protection against North Korea and he wondered why that was the case.

What do we get from our economic competitor South Korea for the tremendous cost of protecting them from North Korea? - NOTHING!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) March 30, 2013

Trump's latest tweet also contradicts his own previous statements on dialogue with North Korea. In May, the president suggested he may go further than any of his predecessors and actually meet North Korean ruler Kim Jong Un "under the right circumstances."

That doesn't seem all that likely now.

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2017-08-30 17:03:07 UTC

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The U.S. has been talking to North Korea, and paying them extortion money, for 25 years. Talking is not the answer!
Donald Trump
President of the United States


Wednesday, August 30, 2017