William Perry’s Case for Diplomacy with North Korea

“People have asked me, why in the world at ninety years old are you still plugging away at this problem?”

Former Secretary of Defense Bill Perry explained why he remains committed to promoting “a future not marred by nuclear war” to an audience of experts, journalists, and advocacy groups at Nuclear Policy in a Time of Crisis, a conference sponsored by Ploughshares Fund in Washington, D.C.

“I do have eight grandchildren, and I do have three great-grandchildren. I would really like to see them have some future on this planet.”

But right now, the increasing prospect of war with North Korea, a country that possesses “about 20 to 30 nuclear weapons” and “the missiles to deliver these to South Korea and Japan,” threatens to compromise that future.

Perry underscored that a military conflict on the Korean Peninsula would be catastrophic: “We’re not talking about the original Korean War; we’re talking about many millions of deaths.”

Scott Sagan, a nuclear disarmament expert at Stanford, writes that “one million people could die on the first day of a second Korean war.” Indeed, the Congressional Research Service’s recent report on U.S. military options to denuclearize North Korea estimates that up to 300,000 people could die in the opening days of a conventional conflict. If raised to the nuclear level, that number would quickly rise into the millions.

As Perry stated, “We do not have a viable military option.”

Yet several U.S. officials, including President Trump, continue to make bellicose statements that raise the risk for miscalculation. Perry argued that intimidation tactics, such as threats of decapitation strikes, are destabilizing and must come to an end. “The real danger is it will stimulate [North Korea] to take a preventive strike, to try to prevent our preemption.”

“I believe we should get serious about diplomacy. I mean serious about diplomacy,” Perry emphasized.

As a negotiator under the Clinton Administration, Perry witnessed first-hand how dialogue with North Korea can open a path towards peace. He described his experience leading a team of inside and outside government officials in the Perry Process as “a huge missed opportunity.”

“I came away from those talks believing that [North Korea’s] number one objective was sustaining the Kim regime. The number two objective was gaining international respect… And number three was economic.” By providing Pyongyang with security assurances, the United States was able to reach an agreement on steps to suspend and eventually dismantle North Korea’s nuclear and long-range missile activities.

Unfortunately, that plan stalled just one month later with the election of President George W. Bush. The new administration, taking a hardline approach, “decided instead to cut off all negotiations with North Korea” for the next two years.

Perry admitted that the situation today poses greater challenges. “Getting them to give up a nuclear arsenal they already have is a steeper diplomatic path to climb.” Nonetheless, the United States has several non-military options at its disposal.

“Our first step,” Perry said, “is not dialogue with Pyongyang, but dialogue with Beijing. We have to agree on several things. First of all, what is the threat?” China is not only concerned about a potential war on the Korean Peninsula, but also the prospect of a unified Korea under a South Korean government, and U.S. troops at China’s border. “We have to convince them that we’re not going to take advantage of the situation if it occurs.”

Another important measure to prevent war is happening right now in Congress. Perry highlighted that new legislation to prevent President Trump’s nuclear strike authority would be a valuable corrective to “a system that is bad whoever is President.” Perry praised the bills introduced by Members like John Conyers, Chris Murphy, Ed Markey and Ted Lieu for helping to “stimulate a sensible and important dialogue about North Korea.”

Perry also cautioned, “We ought to be clear-eyed about what we can and cannot do” to defend our allies. Ground-based U.S. missile defense systems would ultimately fail to work because North Korea is “sophisticated enough to build decoys” that would saturate the system. Overestimating the utility of missile defense “detracts us from doing things we should be doing to prevent the war rather than trying to defend against it.”

Ultimately, it is up to us to “study the problem, get the message out, and work at it,” if we want to prevent a new Korean War. As Perry said, “You have an organization in Ploughshares that can rally you together on this issue.”

--Catherine Killough is the Roger Hale Fellow at Ploughshares Fund

More resources:

--“Videos: Nuclear Weapons Policy in a Time of Crisis” -- a compilation of videos from Ploughshares’ October 26 conference, here.

--“‘Wild card’ Trump heads into North Korea’s line of sight” by Joshua Berlinger for CNN, November 7, 2017 here.

--“Vet lawmakers urge Trump to halt heated words with North Korea” by Ellen Mitchell for The Hill, November 6, 2017 here.

--“Matthews: We are close to nuclear standoff” by Chris Matthews for MSNBC, November 6, 2017 here.

--“Donald Trump: I would sit down for talks with Kim Jong-un” by Justin McCurry for The Guardian, November 5, 2017 here.

--“Trump gets ready to ‘maximize pressure’ on North Korea” by Andrew Restuccia for POLITICO, November 5, 2017 here.

--“This Is What a Nuclear War Between North Korea and America Would Look Like” by Dave Majumdar for The National Interest, November 6, 2017 here.

--“Trump: ‘North Korea is worldwide threat,’ but there may be ‘good progress’ toward deal” by David Jackson for USA Today, November 6, 2017 here.

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