“THE NORTH KOREA CONUNDRUM”
MARCH 21, 2017
BY THE HONORABLE WILLIAM J. PERRY
Thank you, Steve, for that over the top introduction!
I have to say I am honored to give a lecture in the names of Doak Barnett and Mike Oksenberg. But I am also challenged to give that lecture at this particular time. American politics today are in in a state of upheaval and confusion. So also are the politics of the United Kingdom, and South Korean politics even more so.
Some dark voices are suggesting that our three countries are demonstrating the inherent weaknesses of democracies. That our countries have run out of steam. They argue that democracy is not efficient enough to deal with today’s complex problems.
I do not agree with that assessment.
I would not minimize the problems we face. And I would admit that I am deeply concerned with the challenges to democracy that I am experiencing firsthand in the United States. I am similarly concerned with the turmoil attending the Brexit decision in the United Kingdom. And even more concerned with the political upheaval in the Republic of Korea.
But I say—not so fast! I am not ready to write off democracy. I want to take a longer view of history.
For more than four decades during the Cold War the United States stood as a bastion of democracy. During that period many argued that the totalitarian system of Soviet Union was more efficient, that it had built a fearsome military to be used against us, and that it would bring about our destruction. Instead, the Soviet Union collapsed—not because of U.S. actions, but because of internal contradictions in its own system, a political system that did not encourage—indeed even allow—independent thinking, and an economic system that did not reward innovation.
We have learned some lessons during these past four decades. We have learned that democracy and free markets can be messy. We also learned that a free market system needs some regulations that protect weaker members of society. In the last decade, our free market system has left behind many millions in the United States—and in the United Kingdom as well I might add.
Those left behind are rising in anger, and they are using democratic elections to throw out the leaders they felt ignored their problems, replacing them with populist leaders who recognize them and who offer easy solutions. So the U.S. and U.K. are in considerable turmoil. South Korea’s problems are different, but the frustration with democracy in South Korea is similar.
My view, though, is that in order to fix these very real problems, we must use the same democratic institutions that allowed them to develop. Democratic institutions have self-correcting features, if we will only use them. So I believe that we have not yet seen the last move in this drama.
In World War II, Winston Churchill famously said: “You can count on Americans to always take the right action—after having first exhausted all other alternatives!” History supports the view that we will get it right, but not always right away. Look at the results of 1950 to 1990 in the United States and compare them with those in the Soviet Union.
When South Koreans complain about a weak economy, they only need to look north at the miserable economy of North Korea. When they complain of corruption, again they only need to look at corruption that pervades the government of North Korea.
Of course, when we consider the relative blessings of our freedom and our vibrant economy, we must also recognize that they do not, in and of themselves, protect us from outside threats—especially military threats. The United States today is rightly concerned about a newly aggressive and newly rearming Russia, now rebuilding its Cold War nuclear arsenal. South Korea is rightly concerned about a newly aggressive North Korea, now building a threatening nuclear arsenal.
I do not want to minimize either of those dangers, but neither am I overwhelmed by them.
I have talked in other venues about how the United States should deal with the dangers looming today in Russia. Today, I will talk about how the United States and South Korea, with help from China, should deal with the dangers posed by the nuclear weapons in North Korea.
We had an opportunity to deal with this problem at the turn of the last century.
In 1999, I went to Pyongyang at the request of President Clinton, South Korean President Kim Dae Jung, and Japanese Prime Minister Obuchi to negotiate an agreement that would require North Korea to give up its programs to develop nuclear weapons and long-range missiles. In return, South Korea and Japan would provide economic assistance and the United States would provide security assurances and recognition. The discussions, I believe, very were encouraging. And were followed by Kim Jong Il sending his senior military aide to Washington in October 2000 to negotiate a formal agreement. We were quite close, within a month or two I believe, to reaching final terms, but time ran out before the Clinton administration could conclude the agreement.
I still believe that the agreement we negotiated at that time could have given us a very different and certainly a safer world than we have today. But when the Bush administration took office in 2001, they cut off all negotiations with the North for two years. And then two years later, at the urging of China, the United States agreed to participate in the Six-Party talks.
All parties approached the Six-Party talks with great hope, but the results could hardly have been more disappointing. Even while participating in the Six-Party talks, North Korea was putting major emphasis on building a nuclear arsenal. They believed, incorrectly I think, that the United States and South Korea were planning to overthrow their regime. And it believed, correctly, that a large but poorly equipped conventional military forces were significantly inferior to the American and South Korean military forces.
So, in effect, in their thinking, the nuclear program allowed them to achieve its supreme goal: regime survival. Since they believed that their nuclear arsenal would serve as a deterrent to an American attack. But they did this at a terrible cost to their economy. Thus, by their actions, they demonstrated that the goal of improving their economy, while important to them, was completely subservient to the goal of regime survival.
Given these beliefs on the part of North Korea, the net result of more than a decade of Six-Party talks was that North Korea built a modest-sized nuclear arsenal, conducted successful tests of nuclear bombs and long-range missiles, and engaged in increasingly threatening rhetoric. Indeed, North Korea has explicitly threatened to use its nuclear weapons to turn Seoul into a “sea of fire.”
But South Korea is not the only nation threatened by North Korea.
North Korea has recently fired a volley of missiles landing in Japanese territorial waters, and some Japanese leaders are now asking whether they should conduct a preemptive attack on North Korea. North Korea also claims to have developed a missile capable of striking the United States, that is an ICMB, which prompted President Trump to suggest that he would not permit North Korea to build an ICBM capability.
So the situation is clearly dangerous and getting more dangerous, it seems to me, every week. But the danger, the danger is not that North Korea would launch a surprise nuclear attack. That is what is described in the media, that is what our leaders are talking about, that in my judgement is not the danger.
It’s true that the North Korean leadership has a history of taking calculated risks, that they have taken many outrageous actions against South Korea, and that they are ruthless to their own people. But they are not “crazy” as some people believe, they are not crazy.
North Korea is a pariah state, but there is logic to their minds to the actions that they are taking. Fundamental to that logic is an overriding commitment to keep their regime in power, that is, to sustain the Kim dynasty—and, against all odds, they have succeeded so far in doing so.
This is a very different problem than we face with al Qaeda or ISIL.
The North Korean leadership is not suicidal; they are not seeking martyrdom. They want to stay in power. And they understand that if they were to launch a nuclear attack, their country would be destroyed and they themselves would be killed—that it would be the end of the Kim dynasty. Their nuclear arsenal gives them a tenuous hold on power, but only if they do not use it, only if they do not use it. That is the key to their planning.
Having said that, I believe that this arsenal is still very dangerous and may embolden the leadership to take even riskier provocations than they have in the past—that is to say, in poker terminology, they could very well overplay their hand. That is, they might provoke South Korea to take military action against them, and that military action could escalate into a wider conflict with the United States. Thus, North Korea could blunder, they could blunder into a major war—a war that they would surely lose. And the certainty of that outcome became clear, as they saw their regime about to be overthrown, they might then, they might then use their nuclear weapons in one last desperate move—an Armageddon so to speak.
That is the danger—a nuclear war that North Korea blunders into, not one that they deliberately start.
I believe that it is still possible to negotiate an agreement with North Korea—not, I repeat, not the agreement we reached 16 years ago, but one that would considerably reduce the dangers posed today. However, as much as we may dislike the leaders in Pyongyang, I repeat again, they are not irrational—they have a clear set of goals. A failure to understand those goals has led to years of fruitless negotiations in the Six-Party talks. If we are to restart negotiations with the North, it is not just a matter of where we go and who participates, but what we talk about. We must do it from a clear understanding of their goals. We had that understanding when I negotiated with them 16 years ago. While the underlying conditions today are very different now that they have a nuclear arsenal, I believe that their goals remain the same.
I saw then, and still see today, three main goals of the regime: the first I have already stated, which is to sustain the Kim dynasty, the second is to gain international respect, and third, to significantly improve their economy.
The agreements we made in 2000 gave them an opportunity to achieve all three of those goals. But the ensuing Six-Party talks made no progress at all, since they were not designed to achieve those goals.
North Korea’s nuclear program allowed them to achieve their first two goals: sustaining the regime and international respect. And those goals took precedence over the economy, which has suffered greatly, demonstrating beyond a doubt that their economic health does not hold priority with the leadership.
This is my assessment of the situation in North Korea today and what has driven their decisions these past few decades.
If we are to succeed in future negotiations to reduce the danger posed by their nuclear weapons, we must be guided by the failures of the past. But while we can learn from history, we should also understand that what would have worked in 2000 will not work today, now that they have a vibrant, growing nuclear arsenal. North Korea today in many ways is very different from what it was 16 years ago, so the incentives and the disincentives we offered then would not be sufficiently effective today.
The really bad news on this is we cannot, I believe, continue to base our diplomacy on the assumption that North Korea is prepared to give up its nuclear weapons. They have already demonstrated that they are willing to endure the worst sanctions we could impose in order to maintain a nuclear option, because they believe it is essential to their primary goal. But they may very well accept significant limitations on their nuclear ambitions in order to gain their third goal of improving their weak economy.
Some years ago Dr. Sig Hecker proposed what he called the “three no’s and one yes”: no new nukes, no better nukes, and no transfer of nukes—but it was never accepted as a basis for negotiations. An updated version of Dr. Hecker’s “three no’s” might very well be the basis for negotiations today, where we offer step-by-step incentives in return for step-by-step compliance with those “no’s.”
I believe that it is not beyond our diplomatic skills to offer such a new diplomatic approach, and any new approach by the United States should be done in participation with China, in participation with China. If the United States and China could agree on a negotiating strategy, we could be much more effective at the operating level, after all the United States has the incentives and China has the distance, and those together in one package could make a very big difference on what is going on.
So while we pursue a diplomatic approach to reducing nuclear dangers, we should also maintain a strong and ready American force in South Korea that is well integrated with the very capable South Korean military forces. That will reduce North Korea’s temptation to believe that they could achieve any benefits from conventional military provocations—provocations that could all too easily cause us to blunder into a war, even if not planned.
Our diplomacy has consistently failed to persuade North Korea to give up its nuclear arsenal, and is likely to continue to fail if that is our overriding goal. But we do have a viable diplomatic option to reduce the dangers created by that arsenal. I believe that North Korea might well agree to give up testing of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles and agree not to sell or transfer any of its nuclear technology, in return for economic concessions from South Korea and security assurances from the United States. The likelihood of success of such negotiations could be greatly enhanced if China would participate in this process.
The agreement I am talking about is certainly not the agreement we have been seeking for decades, but it could be well worth having. It would lower the dangers we now face and conceivably set the stage for a later agreement to roll back their nuclear arsenal.
I must say, I do not suggest this approach with any enthusiasm. But our only realistic alternative is military force. And while North Korea would be defeated in any war, before that could happen South Korea and Japan would suffer devastating consequences.
The North Korean regime is the last Stalinist regime in the world, which we rightly abhor. But in my years of dealing with North Korea I learned one very valuable lesson, one very valuable lesson, and that is: we must deal with North Korea as it is, as it is, and not as we wish it to be.