Asia Pacific

Former U.S. defense chief’s North Korea strategy: Deal with it as it is, not as we wish it to be

by Jesse Johnson

Staff Writer

“We must deal with North Korea as it is, not as we wish it to be.”

That was the key phrase in the preface of a report handed to the Japanese, South Korean and American leaders after former U.S. defense chief William Perry’s unprecedented 1999 visit to Pyongyang.

Nearly 18 years later, those words still ring true for Perry. The former defense secretary, who served under President Bill Clinton from 1994-1997, has become one of the most visible faces of a growing movement urging Washington, as well as other key nations, to set realistic goals and again engage Pyongyang diplomatically over its burgeoning nuclear and weapons programs.

According to Perry, recent U.S. policies and strategies toward the North, lacking a clear understanding of Pyongyang’s aims, have failed out of the gate. The result has been a ramped-up level of progress in its weapons programs unforeseen by U.S. analysts and government officials alike.

“I believe our policies ought to be oriented around that assessment of what their goals are,” Perry told The Japan Times in an interview. “I think our negotiations ought to be oriented around what their goals are and our policies, our strategies, ought to be oriented around minimizing dangers. I don’t think our negotiations or our policies have been.”

This could include moves such as moratoriums or deals on halting long-range missile programs and nuclear tests in exchange for certain carrots like economic aid and recognition.

Not acknowledging the motivations behind North Korea’s provocations, Perry alluded, could end up seeing the U.S., South Korea — and in turn Japan — embroiled in another Korean conflict.

In a January commentary for the website Politico, he wrote that it is probably too late to dismantle the North’s nuclear program. Instead, he said, the goal must be shifted to containing them.

Citing Sigfried Hecker, the former director of the Los Alamos National Laboratory who has made four visits to the North’s Nyongbyon reactor, Perry wrote that negotiations are “doomed to continue to fail” if they are based on the premise that it will give up its nuclear weapons.

He said the U.S. could start off with more modest goals using Hecker’s “Three Nos” (1. No new weapons; 2. No better weapons; and 3. No transfer of nuclear technology or weapons), in addition to incentives previously offered to Pyongyang. Achieving these goals would not only be of great security value, but could also be a “stepping stone” for follow-up negotiations with an ultimate goal of denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula, Perry said.

Nearing a deal

Tapped to be North Korea policy coordinator by Clinton in 1998, Perry oversaw a review that ultimately brought Washington closer than it had ever been to reaching a deal to rein in Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile programs.

Perry, who was awarded the Order of the Rising Sun by the Emperor in 2002, now operates the William J Perry Project, a nonprofit effort to educate the public on the dangers of nuclear weapons. He lectures often, traveling last month to both China and Taiwan.

Last month’s trip was reminiscent of his time as defense chief, shuttling throughout Northeast Asia, where Perry was active in bringing together the U.S., South Korea and Japan in the three allies’ bid to bring stability to the Korean Peninsula.

In 1999, he even delivered to the North a proposal by Clinton that the 50-year-old economic embargo against the country be lifted gradually in exchange for a series of major concessions, including an agreement to end its long-range missile program.

Perry’s legwork laid the foundation for a flurry of visits by top officials from both countries and a growing view at the time that a deal could be reached.

But as the Clinton administration wound down at the end of 2000, and new President George W. Bush prepared to enter the White House, that momentum dwindled.

The U.S. had been “tantalizingly close” to sealing a deal with North Korea to eliminate its medium- and long-range missiles and end its missile exports, Wendy Sherman, former special adviser to the president and secretary of state for North Korea policy, wrote in a New York Times editorial in March 2001. She urged Bush to seize the chance.

Ten months later, the ground had shifted. The U.S. was reeling, wounded by the 9/11 terrorist attacks and looking for vengeance, and Iraq, Iran and Islamic terrorism had become the focus of the White House.

Lumped in with Tehran and Baghdad was Pyongyang, which Bush branded part of his “axis of evil.”

“President Bush deliberately stopped the one negotiations — which were almost completed — which conceivably could have prevented this problem,” Perry said. “He did that with the belief that he had better a negotiation underway. That negotiation obviously did not succeed nor did the negotiations of the Obama administration.

“Without assessing the theoretical value of what they were doing, the result is pretty straightforward,” Perry said, noting the current state of affairs.

In his 2015 book “My Journey at the Nuclear Brink,” Perry summed up the results of U.S. policy toward the North since the Clinton administration as “perhaps the most unsuccessful exercise of diplomacy in our country’s history.”

“My own assessment of why it did not succeed in the case of the Bush administration is that I think they were just distracted by the Iraq War,” Perry said. “They didn’t put enough time or attention into it. Who knows what would have happened if they had really made it a priority and worked at it. But they did not.”

Risk of a new war

Still, Perry said, that while the Bush administration was preoccupied with the Middle East, his successor, President Barack Obama, actually had a policy — under which the North’s nuclear and missile progress continued.

“It was called ‘strategic patience,’ ” he said. “Nearly as I can determine, what strategic patience means is that ‘if we wait long enough, North Korea will collapse.’ I think that’s a forlorn hope. I’d be happy to see them collapse, but there’s no reason at all to believe that is going to happen.”

Instead, what Perry fears may occur amid the tense security environment on the Korean Peninsula is the eruption of smaller-level hostilities into a wider conflict that drags in the U.S. and Japan.

“If that happens, that is if we have a ‘new Korean war,’ the North would surely lose … and at that point, seeing the end of the regime, they might unleash an armageddon with their nuclear weapons,” Perry said. “So in a sense they could blunder into a war and if they blunder into it, they could use nuclear weapons in a last ditch effort.”

For Perry, this scenario is the most likely one among the various theories of how the North could spark a conflict. He rules out any kind of surprise attack against South Korea, Japan or the United States, saying such a move would be “suicidal” and would violate Pyongyang’s No. 1 goal: survival of the regime.

“They’re not seeking martyrdom. They’re not an al-Qaida or ISIL,” he said, using an alternative name for the Islamic State group.

“However they use their weapons will be based on a calculation that the use is oriented around … first and foremost the survival of the regime, the sustaining of the Kim dynasty.

“That, I’m quite confident, is their primary goal in life.”

And while North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and his regime has often been labeled as “crazy,” including by former GOP presidential candidate Sen. John McCain last month, Perry believes this to be a false assumption.

“People who say they are crazy, I think they’re wrong,” Perry said. “They’re a pariah state. They take outrageous actions, but those actions are all designed to strengthen their hold on power.”

According to Perry, a grasp of this is necessary however U.S. policy toward the North proceeds.

Opening for negotiations?

New U.S. President Donald Trump has vowed that his administration’s policy toward Pyongyang will differ from Obama’s, with Secretary of State Rex Tillerson declaring the end of strategic patience.

Trump has spoken alternatively of both sitting down for hamburgers with Kim and of doing whatever it takes to prevent him from mastering the technology to mount a nuclear weapon on a long-range missile capable of hitting the continental U.S.

But after the North’s four-missile test-launch last month, which it said was a rehearsal for targeting U.S. bases in Japan, Trump has taken a decidedly harsher tone.

Last month, Tillerson said all options — including pre-emptive military strikes — were “on the table.” Earlier this year, he also ripped a claim by Kim that preparations were in the final stages, saying: “It won’t happen.”

The North has responded with its own rhetoric, lashing out at the Trump administration’s approach to the isolated nation and likening it to the Obama administration’s moves.

Brinkmanship aside, Perry believes there is an opening for talks.

“He might actually try to negotiate with them, which would be a good thing — if he negotiated from some real understanding of where they are coming from,” Perry said of Trump, cautioning that a good negotiator must strive to understand what drives the other side.

“I think I do understand what drives the other side, which makes me a little pessimistic about a negotiation based on threats and bluster.”

Beyond grasping what the North hopes to achieve, Perry believes there is another compound that is essential for the U.S. to make a serious run at negotiations with Pyongyang: China.

“We need to do it in conjunction with China, which we have never done in the past,” Perry said. “Even though we both sat in the six-party talks together, we have never had a common understanding of the threat, we’ve never had a common strategy for how to proceed.”

Now — amid the North’s frosty ties with Beijing, its erstwhile patron — may be an opportune time, he said.

“I think what has happened in China over the last couple of years is they have gotten a better understanding of what the danger is of North Korean nukes,” he said. “I think they’re much more concerned about that than they were a few years ago.”

Given that, Perry said, there is a distinct a possibility at least of coming to a common negotiating strategy.

“If we could do that, it greatly improves our success in a negotiation,” he said.

Talking tough

Some experts, including Perry, say that if the U.S. fails to set reasonable goals, it could inadvertently risk a disastrous situation in the region. One such result could see Japan and South Korea embarking on a quest to develop their own nuclear weapons capabilities — something Trump hinted at while campaigning — and further destabilizing the region.

“I understand why the Japanese are distressed, but I also want to think about what their real alternatives are,” Perry said. “One alternative is for them to build nuclear weapons … so they could threaten a response themselves, an assured response. … That, I think is a very bad idea, but it could happen.”

Another option, he said, would be to bolster Japanese confidence in the U.S. by asking Washington to make a stronger statement about its policy of extended deterrence.

“The surest way of doing it would be to ask us to deploy some of our nuclear weapons in Japan,” Perry said, noting the example of Germany. U.S. atomic weapons were first deployed there during the Cold War as a way of displaying Washington’s commitment to protecting that country.

“When you start talking tough, you have to start thinking about what are the realistic alternatives,” Perry said. “None of them is very attractive.”

According to Perry, the U.S.-Japan strategy is moving toward reassurances of extended deterrence and providing some limited ballistic missile-defense systems — a policy not unlike that of Trump’s predecessor.

For the former defense chief, this trajectory — a potential return to the status quo — has proved maddening.

“It’s frustrating to think that you understand the issue and see it moving off in very different directions,” he said. “I could tell you what I think could work, but I have no reason to believe it’s going to be tried.”