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INTERVIEW/ William J. Perry: Diplomacy only viable option to deal with North Korean crisis

William J. Perry, a former U.S. secretary of defense, speaks during an interview on Nov. 14 in Palo Alto, Calif. (Photo by Yuko Lanham)

Former U.S. Secretary of Defense William J. Perry, who helped resolve the 1994 crisis on the Korean Peninsula, says the United States and other countries should stick to diplomacy to address military provocations by North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.


“Discussions and negotiations with North Korea are the only reasonable alternative to what could turn into a disastrous military operation,” Perry told The Asahi Shimbun during an interview on Nov. 14 in Palo Alto, Calif.


Perry, 90, revealed that the Clinton administration drew up a plan to destroy North Korean nuclear facilities with cruise missiles in 1994.


He also said President Bill Clinton was prepared to “approve” his recommendation to send an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to South Korea to defend against a surprise attack from North Korea and safeguard Seoul.


Still, Perry sought a diplomatic solution as a presidential envoy to ease the tensions on the Korean Peninsula.


Perry said he does not believe that a U.S. first strike is a viable option today because North Korea already possesses an “arsenal of perhaps 20 or so nuclear weapons.”


Speaking of the consequences of a war, Perry said: “As bad as the first Korean War was, a war in the Korean Peninsula that extends to Japan and that goes nuclear would be 10 times worse.”


Perry said he is “convinced” that Defense Secretary James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson both understand the consequences of a military action in North Korea, although he is not as sure whether President Donald Trump does.


“While they’re not the final decision-makers, they are certainly in a powerful position to recommend to the president, and I think they’re recommending diplomatic solutions rather than military solutions,” he said.


Perry, who advocated “A World Free of Nuclear Weapons” with three other U.S. statesmen in 2007, also suggested how the world could narrow the gap between the goal and the reality.


Excerpts from the interview follow:

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Question: Could you review for us the work you did and what happened during the North Korean crisis when you were secretary of defense in 1994?


Perry: I was appointed secretary in February 1994, and the first crisis I faced as secretary was North Korea, which culminated in June but it actually began in March and April. The North Koreans had a nuclear reactor at Yongbyon, for the purpose of generating electrical power. And it was operated–its fuel was plutonium. And, after it operated for so many months, the fuel was spent, and you had to take it out for reprocessing. But the spent fuel from that kind of reactor can be converted into plutonium that can be used for a bomb. It’s a dangerous reactor, from that point of view.


Up until that point, the North Koreans were members of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, and they had promised, therefore, not to make atomic bombs. But in March or April, they announced they were going to begin reprocessing the fuel to make plutonium out of it. And had they done that, that would have given them enough plutonium for six nuclear bombs. So we were very strongly opposed to that. And in the ensuing discussions over the next few months, they actually sent the U.N. (International Atomic Energy Agency) inspectors home, who were there to see that they didn’t do something like that. And they were talking about withdrawing from the Non-Proliferation Treaty. So this was a very dangerous situation.


My position at the time, which the president shared, was that we would not allow them to make six nuclear bombs and, therefore, we needed to stop them from reprocessing that fuel, which would give them plutonium. Once they had the plutonium, it was relatively easy to make the bomb. So the key action we could take was to stop them from the reprocessing. So I was the secretary at the time and I made the public statement, with the approval of the president, that we would not permit them to make plutonium and that we were prepared to take military action if necessary, to stop it. And this was, I might say, not an empty threat.


Since then, many secretaries and many presidents have made statements somewhat like that, but they were empty threats. But we were prepared to follow through. I actually had a plan, on my desk, for using a cruise missile to destroy Yongbyon (nuclear site), which would have meant they could not make the plutonium. Well, our first priority was to get the military (aspect) carried out. The military, as I said, was very far back on the table, but it was there, and it was a threat. It was the coercion factor of our diplomacy. We hoped, and believed, we would not have to apply it, but we were serious about it there, and we were prepared to apply it, had North Korea rebuffed our diplomatic approach. But they didn’t, so we’ll never know what would have happened.


But in my view, we were prepared at that time that if they rejected diplomacy and went ahead to start making nuclear bombs, we were prepared, then, as we knew the consequences could be serious, but we also believed the consequences of them getting a nuclear bomb would be serious and probably even more serious, which, in fact, has turned out to be.


But both I, and certainly the president, understood that that was an action we did not want to take, not because it would be any difficult doing it, not because the result wouldn’t have been desirable, but the consequence was the possibility that North Korea would respond to that by taking military action against South Korea. Not against the United States, they had no way of doing that against the United States. But they could have taken it against South Korea. And as you know from looking at the map, the DMZ is very close to Seoul. Just imagine having North Korean troops 20 miles from Tokyo. You get an idea of that, of the consequences of this. So the military option was on the table but it was very far back on the table. We were pushing for diplomatic solutions.


Q: But was it nearly going to war?


A: Yes, because at the time the North Korean response was very aggressive. After I made my public statement, the North Korean press referred to me, personally, as a “war maniac,” which is pretty far from the truth. I’m actually a very peaceful person. And, as I said, although I had the plan to destroy them, we did not intend to use it if we didn’t have to. I favored, and certainly the president favored, diplomacy as our first option.


Q: And then how can you make sure that they would listen to you seriously, that they wouldn’t really take it as an empty threat, but this is a serious one?


A: Well, once you make two or three empty threats, you lose credibility. We hadn’t done that yet. So I think our threat was credible. It was reinforced inadvertently, in that shortly after I made that statement, the man who had been the national security adviser to the previous administration, Brent Scowcroft–he had been the national security adviser for the first President Bush–wrote an op-ed for The Washington Post, in which he recommended that we use cruise missiles to strike the reactor if the North Koreans did not stop the reprocessing.


He was a good friend of mine, and I have always believed that the North Koreans, who “do their homework” on these issues, believed that I had put him up to writing that article, and that we were serious about this. So we were favoring diplomacy but this is what you would call “coercive diplomacy.” It was diplomacy with a promise, on the one hand, but with a threat. And I believe the threat was credible to the North back in 1994. All of the threats since then have not been credible and they have ignored them. That threat was credible.


So shortly after that, the next day, Kim Il Sung invited (former) President Jimmy Carter to come over, to discuss the crisis, which President Carter was happy to do. And that led, in a few days, to his offering to negotiate. It was a very close-run thing because between the time that Carter was invited over there–in the next few days after Carter was invited over there–we had put together our plan for imposing very, very serious sanctions on North Korea, and I had advised the president we should not impose those sanctions until we had–I said that it’s possible that the sanctions themselves would precipitate a military strike against the South. In fact, that’s what the North was saying they would do. And I thought we had to take them seriously.


So, during that period of a few days there, I met with the president, along with our chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and along with our military commander in Korea, who had come home for that meeting, to present to him a proposal to reinforce our troops in South Korea before we imposed the sanctions, so that if the North conducted a military action, we’d be prepared for it. And I was proposing a really substantial, you know, 30,000 more troops, which is a lot! Today, for example, we only have 30,000 troops in all of South Korea. But we then had 40-some-thousand. I was proposing to add another 30,000. So, this would have been a pretty significant move.


We were actually in the meeting, when I was proposing that, when the telephone call came from Carter, in Pyongyang. He said that Kim Il Sung was ready to negotiate about not processing the plutonium. And I recommended to the president–which he accepted–that we accept his recommendation but only–only–if he agreed to stop the activity at Yongbyon, while the negotiations were going on. I was afraid the negotiations would be interminable and in the meantime they’d go ahead and make their plutonium. So that was the way we responded, and Kim Il Sung accepted that. And that led in just a … that stopped the crisis and within a few months we had actually negotiated the so-called “Agreed Framework.”


Q: Before the meeting at the White House you and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman, Gen. Shalikashvili, summoned every active four-star general in the meeting. How many percent thought that you had to take military action that would be going to war at that time?


A: I want to be clear on one thing. We were not planning to start a war, but we recognized that the actions we would take and the strong position we were taking, in particular, sending more troops over there and imposing sanctions, might prompt North Korea to start a war. And we wanted to have strong enough forces there that, if they started a war, they could not overrun Seoul, because they would do inconceivable damage if they could actually capture Seoul. So, we wanted to have enough–we knew we would win a war with North Korea, but we wanted to win it before they destroyed Seoul. That’s what the extra troops were there for, and that’s why we were taking these actions.


Q: According to the book titled “The Two Koreas,” written by a journalist, in the middle of May 1994, President Clinton was briefed on the estimation that causing a conflict would cost 52,000 U.S. military casualties, killed or wounded, and 490,000 South Korean military casualties, in the first 90 days. Is that correct?


A: I don’t remember the numbers. That sounds reasonable.


Q: And what was the reaction of President Clinton after the briefing?


A: He was prepared to approve the reinforcement that I was proposing. I actually gave him several options. There was a 20,000, a 30,000, a 40,000. Several options. But they were all substantial, and he was quite clear he was going to approve them. He never had to make that decision because the phone call came in, literally minutes before he was going to make that decision. I have always wondered if that was coincidental or I suppose not, because it was publicly known that we were having the meeting, and so the North Koreans would have known that. And they wanted to get–I think they wanted to get their proposal in before the meeting was over. That’s what I assumed anyway.


Q: While you were preparing military action, what did you coordinate or request to the Japanese government?


A: I made a trip over, the week before that meeting, to Japan and to South Korea. In South Korea, I met with both the American and the South Korean generals. I reviewed their plan. I forget the number now. It was a contingency plan for the defense of South Korea, in the event of a North Korean surprise attack. I had to review that, and that was what led me to conclude it would not be sufficient–we couldn’t be sure it would stop the North Koreans before they destroyed Seoul. And that led me to conclude we needed to have another 30,000 troops. And so, Gen. Luck was the commander of the Joint Korean Forces at that time, and he was the one that made the recommendation, and then he came back with me to Washington for the briefing to President Clinton. That was the meeting with the South Koreans, both American and South Korean militaries, as well as the South Korean government officials and president.


Then, I also met with the incoming Japanese prime minister (Tsutomu Hata). I don’t remember whether it was before or after that meeting, but on the same trip. I told him what we were doing. I said that I believed we were not going to go into a war but we had to be prepared for it, but that if we went into a war, our plans and vision was not Japan entering the war, but envisioned using the air bases in Japan for resupplying our forces in Korea. I wanted him to be aware that our plans called for that, and to get his prior permission for doing that, so I could tell the president we would be able to execute this plan, by using the Japanese air bases.


Q: What was Japan’s reaction to that?


A: His reaction was “Yes, we understand that.” But he asked me not to make a public statement about it. Which I didn’t. It would unnecessarily worry the Japanese public.


Q: As it turned out, you did sign the Agreed Framework with North Korea and avoided a military clash. What was the decisive factor to reach the agreement?


A: Well, the Agreed Framework, as it was constructed, could either end the nuclear threat from North Korea or at least delay it for a number of years. We couldn’t be sure it would end it, but we were pretty sure–we knew it would delay it for many years. But I think, more importantly, the Agreed Framework–so, it put that nuclear problem at least on the back burner for a while. And then, in the meantime, it gave an opportunity to develop a more normal relationship with North Korea. The Agreed Framework had some what I would call “hard agreements” and some “soft agreements.” The hard agreements had to do with the aid we were supplying North Korea, which was the biggest part of which was two commercial nuclear reactors for providing electricity to North Korea, which were going to be built by Japan and South Korea. And, until those reactors were on the air and providing electricity, the United States was going to provide fuel oil to run generators to provide electricity. So, there were the “hard” features of it.


And we complied with those agreements. I must admit that the building of the reactors ran behind schedule. It was a couple years behind. But it was being built. And I have pictures of the state of construction at the time that it was actually stopped. It was pretty, reasonably, far along. But it was a couple years behind schedule, which the North Koreans–rightfully, I think–complained about. But, in essence, the “hard agreements” were being met. But the “soft agreements” envisioned assistance to North Korea in building up its industry, assistance in improving their agriculture, trade agreements back and forth, family meetings between South and North Koreans, the things that would start making North Korea more like a normal nation.


And, to me, the soft agreements were just as important as the hard agreements, but in fact the soft agreements were never met. When people say we didn’t comply with the Agreed Framework, they’re usually talking about the fact that the reactors were running a little bit late. I don’t think that was the big issue because they were being built, and visibly being built. You could see them being built. I think it was the fact that we did not go ahead with the soft agreements. South Korea did go ahead with one of them, which was moving ahead with the establishment of the industrial facility at Kaesong. That was one positive consequence. But the United States did none of those things. And the reason the president did not do those things is because he ran into a very strong resistance in the U.S. Congress for even having signed the Agreed Framework. Many, particularly Republicans, did not agree with it. And, in fact, when President George Bush–the second President Bush–finally was elected in 2001, one of the first things he did was seek to revoke the Agreed Framework, which happened in 2002, I think.


So, there was a lot of resistance to the Agreed Framework and, as a consequence, President Clinton decided to meet the hard agreements to the Agreed Framework. Every year we supplied fuel oil, although I must say it came out of the Defense Department budget, so I had to get the authorization from the Congress, and there was much resistance in the Congress for doing that. The first year I just did it, I didn’t ask for permission, and I got pretty badly criticized for doing that. The second year I went back for the permission. I got the permission but after a hard fight. So, the Congress was opposed. And it was a small problem in the first year or two, when there was still Democratic control of the Congress, but in the third year of my term the Republicans gained control of the Congress and it was very, very hard to get the “hard agreements” carried out. We did. But the “soft agreements” were not carried out because President Clinton had so much resistance on the “hard agreements.” He said, “Well, we’ll meet the ‘hard agreements;’ we’ll give up on the soft.” We never did them. We’ll never know, we cannot relive history so we’ll never know whether we would have had a different outcome if we had actually followed through on those what I call “soft agreements.”


Q: Do you think that would have, sort of, changed the society of North Korea, from the core from that point?


A: I think there was a possibility. I think North Korea was probably sincere in wanting those soft agreements to be carried out, wanting to become more like a normal nation. And we later saw that manifested when I had another chance to negotiate with them in 1999 and 2000, when they actually did things like having their athletes march with the South Korean athletes to the Olympics. We saw Kim Jong Il going to Shanghai to visit the stock exchange. He was thinking of introducing something like that into his country. So there was, I think, serious consideration by North Korea to stop being “the hermit kingdom” and start joining the family of nations. And there were provisions in the Agreed Framework which facilitated that happening, which were not carried out, and we’ll never know, had they been carried out, if it would have made a difference. But I’m inclined to believe it would have. And the same thing with two of the later discussions we had in the year 2000.




Q: And, moving to the second part, the current North Korean crisis, compared to the crisis in 1994, from your view, how serious is the current crisis?


A: Oh, much more serious. Much more. Because they now have a nuclear arsenal. That’s the difference. The threats sound the same. Kim Jong Un, although he’s younger than Kim Jong Il was, is saying many of the same things. We don’t know if he’s as seasoned as–we know he’s not as seasoned. We don’t know if he’s as conservative as Kim Il Sung was. But he’s saying many of the same things. But the big difference, really, is that now the North Koreans have a nuclear arsenal. I don’t believe for a minute that they’re planning to make an unprovoked strike with that arsenal. The threats against Tokyo, the threats against Seoul, I think are empty threats. They’re bombastic, in the sense that they will not make an unprovoked strike. It’s not threats that, if we make a military strike against them, that would be the response.


So, the difference today is if we made a military strike in 1994, there would have been some kind of a conventional military action against South Korea. It might have been serious. I mean, it might have been small scale or large scale, I don’t know, but it would have been something. But it would not have been nuclear; they didn’t have nuclear bombs then. So, it would have been limited in damage. Today, if they make a strike, it could go nuclear and there could be huge numbers of casualties. So, there’s several orders of magnitude difference of the consequences today, as opposed to 1994. Some of the qualitative factors are very much the same, but the quantitative factor, in the number of casualties that would occur, is very much larger.


Q: Do you mean the pre-emptive strike that you considered in the past is not one of the options right now?


A: The government says it’s an option. I do not believe it’s viable. I do not believe that a military option, today, is–a first-strike military option–is a viable option. The only way I see our military being used today is in response to a first action by North Korea, which I don’t think is going to happen. So, the danger today, I believe, is that we will blunder into some kind of a war, which could go nuclear, not that either the United States or North Korea would want to start a war. But we could blunder into it in various ways.


One of them would be if the United States conducted a limited strike, for some limited purpose, and North Korea might respond with nuclear. That’s what I would call “blundering into it,” because obviously we wouldn’t make that strike if we thought it was going to lead to a nuclear response. Another is that we could threaten North Korea so loud and so strong and so convincing that they might believe that we’re about to conduct a decapitation strike, and that they might, then, use their weapons first, in desperation. I don’t think either of those outcomes is likely, but that’s the way I think we could blunder into a war. And that’s, again, what I think today is, not that either the United States or South Korea or North Korea would deliberately start a war, but that we would blunder into it through some kind of a miscalculation, either on our part or on the North Koreans’ part.


Q: How about the difficulties to negotiate with North Korea, compared with the past?


A: I never had great difficulty in negotiating with them. I was not a direct negotiator in ’94; I was only an indirect negotiator. But in 1999 and 2000, I directly negotiated with them (as a presidential envoy). I went to Pyongyang, spent four days there meeting with their top officials, and we negotiated an agreement to replace the Agreed Framework. A big improvement over the Agreed Framework, much more comprehensive agreement. And that resulted in then-leader Kim Jong Il sending his top military man to Washington for a meeting and basically coming up with a handshake agreement on what we had negotiated in Pyongyang. But that handshake was in October 2000, and one month later we had an election and the Republican administration, the one who had been opposed to the Agreed Framework, now came into power. And they did not sign the agreement; they terminated the agreement. In fact, they terminated all discussion with North Korea for two years. So, for two years, there were no discussions at all. And I guess you might say “the rest is history,” that we tried to–China tried to–stimulate a recovery from that, by convening the six-party talks, which by then the Bush administration was ready to take part in. But, as is well known, those did not result in an agreement, and by a few years after we started the six-party talks, North Korea conducted its first nuclear test. And now they have an arsenal of perhaps 20 or so nuclear weapons. There have been many threats in the meantime, to not let them do that, that the United States would not tolerate that. But those are empty threats, and those empty threats were made both by the Bush administration and by the Obama administration. But, as I said, they were empty and therefore any threats we make today lack credibility because of the succession of empty threats that were made. I repeat again, the threat we made in 1994, while we never had to carry it out, was not an empty threat. We were prepared to carry it out.


Q: As you pointed out, Kim Jong Un is taking provocative action. What is his main objective?


A: His main objective, without doubt, in my mind, is preserving the Kim dynasty, sustaining the regime. That’s what he’s all about. And he has succeeded in doing that. He and his father and grandfather have succeeded in doing that against all odds. From the time that the Soviet Union collapsed, Stalinist regimes all over the world have been disappearing. Not North Korea. North Korea has hung in there. It’s the last Stalinist regime left in the world. So they’ve done, from their point of view, they’ve done something right; they’ve sustained their dynasty. Now they’re on the third generation of that dynasty. That’s what they’re all about, I think.


Their second objective is to earn international respect and recognition. So, when I negotiated with them in 1999 and 2000, I had in my mind “That’s what they are looking for.” And we had a proposal of how they could get those–they get those two objectives, of course, with nuclear weapons. Our proposal was how they could get those two objectives without nuclear weapons. And we had a proposal which I think satisfied them and was reasonable for us. But we also offered them some economic incentives. And while that’s obviously desirable to them, they’ve demonstrated over and over again that has a lower priority than the first two. Sustaining the dynasty, maintain their security, and gaining international respect and recognition. They want the economics but not at the cost of those first two.


Q: This summer, you sent a letter with former Secretary of State George Shultz to President Donald Trump to encourage him to begin discussion with North Korea. If you were secretary of defense under the Trump administration, what would you advise to the president on North Korea?


A: I cannot imagine myself being secretary of defense under the Trump administration, I’m sorry. That’s “a road too far” for me. What I recommended to the secretary of defense presently, Secretary James Mattis, is that he support the view of discussions and negotiations with the North, as the only reasonable alternative to what could turn into a disastrous military operation. And I do know that he understands how serious a military action could be in North Korea, does not take it lightly at all. And therefore, I think he’s working in that direction. I’m not saying he’s doing things I would be doing, nothing like that. But I’m satisfied that he does understand the consequences. I’m not convinced the president does, but I’m convinced that the secretary of defense does, and the secretary of state does. So that’s the only comfort I have with the situation today, is that while they’re not the final decision-makers, they are certainly in a powerful position to recommend to the president, and I think they’re recommending diplomatic solutions rather than military solutions.


Q: Do you think Kim Jong Un is a leader with whom we can seriously negotiate?


A: Well, I’d like to find out. We haven’t put it to the test yet. Based on the action of his two predecessors, the answer is yes. We tested it out with them and they were both, given a reasonable proposal, they were willing to jump on it. Although you have to be careful. The other two agreements we’ve made with them were agreements which they cheated on, one way or the other. So, even then, it delayed their nuclear program by many years. But if we were going to negotiate today, we would like to get not only a delay in bad things happening, but have some kind of a verification system which reduces the possibility, the likelihood, they’ll be able to successfully cheat.


He is succeeding in what he’s doing and you have to measure a crazy person who does something which makes no sense–leads to results which are bad for him. He wanted to keep his regime in power. He’s got a nuclear arsenal and it does that. It certainly raises the stakes on anybody that’s thinking of attacking North Korea. He wants to gain international respect and recognition. He’s done that. So how can you call that crazy? He might not be wise but he’s not crazy. He’s ruthless, he’s reckless; he’s not crazy. That’s not based on a psychoanalysis of him, which I couldn’t do; it’s based on the results. He’s getting what he wants. That’s rational.


Q: President Trump and Kim Jong Un have been exchanging harsh rhetoric. How do you see President Trump’s brinksmanship on North Korea, using name calling?


A: I think this harsh rhetoric is a mistake for both of them. It’s a mistake because it’s intended to intimidate the other. Obviously it’s not, it’s not intimidating North Korea. And certainly their threats to us don’t intimidate the United States. What it does is stimulate their thinking that we might be preparing a decapitation attack. And I believe that President Trump thinks he’s intimidating them. But what he might is stimulate exactly the action he doesn’t want, which is a military first strike on the part of North Korea. As I said before, I do not believe that a first strike would be in their interests, and I think they understand that. So they would only do it in a desperate situation. Hopefully, even very threatening rhetoric would not lead them to believe that we were about to attack. But that’s the danger. That’s the danger.


Q: You mentioned that there is more chance of a miscalculation now if you compare it to the past crises. Why do you think there is? What are the elements of miscalculation?


A: Yes, it increases the risk of a miscalculation, which is higher today than it was in previous crises. Well, the threats of–the North Koreans have always made harsh threats. They are masters of invective. They talk about–years ago they talked about–turning Seoul into “a sea of flames.” Years ago they called me a “war maniac.” I mean, anybody that tries to outinvective them is going to lose the battle. That’s what they’re good at. So, we should–I would counsel two things about these rash statements. The first is that we not get too excited over the North Korean statements. Just look at their history of statements. That’s what they do. Secondly, that we don’t play their game, we don’t engage, we don’t try to match, try to outinvective them. First of all, we’re not going to win that battle and secondly it creates the danger, an unnecessary danger.


Q: And then I guess President Trump’s tweets.


A: Yes! It’s the president speaking, whether he does it in a tweet or in a news conference or in a message to Congress, that’s what he’s saying. And you have to take it seriously if it comes from the president. So, I think those rash, reckless, threats create an unnecessary danger and I wish the president would not do that.


Q: Now North Korea refuses to negotiate with the United States on the condition for giving up the nuclear program. Do you think it’s difficult for North Korea to dismantle, not suspend, nuclear weapons?


A: Well first of all, if we insist on getting the results from the negotiations before going into the negotiations, we’ll never get negotiations. So that, to me, is completely obvious. That’s a foolish position for us to take. We can go into the negotiations with the goal of getting them to do that, but we can’t go into the negotiations with that agreement before we go in and negotiate. Now, if we do get a negotiation, what result could we expect to get from it? When I negotiated with them in 1999 and 2000, the result we sought, and would not settle for less than, was a result of them agreeing to interrupt the nuclear program, and their long-range missile program. That was what we were negotiating.


But they didn’t have one then. Now they have one. They have the nuclear arsenal, some of them operational, and they have hundreds of short- and medium-range missiles, some of which are capable of carrying nuclear weapons, and they’re developing a long–range missile program. Within a year or two they will probably have a long-range missile operational. They’re not going to give that up. The best we can hope to do right now, I think, is getting them to stop what they’re doing–in other words, damage limiting–and then, if we could get that, then work to start ratcheting it down, rolling it back. But it’s a much harder negotiation today than it was when I talked with them in 1999. Then, I was trying to get them to give up going on a program, which they were not sure would succeed. Now you have to talk to them, you have to ask them to give up a program they already have, an arsenal they already have, an arsenal which they see as being tremendously valuable, which gives them two of their three main objectives, which is the security and the international respect. Why would they give that up?


So, we have to have very powerful incentives, to even get them to talk about doing it, to talk about freezing it, stopping it at some level, and then start working back. That’s a very tough negotiation. We missed a huge opportunity, back in 1999-2000, when we didn’t go ahead with. We missed another huge opportunity back in the six-party talks, not being able to drive home an agreement there. So, we’ve lost those opportunities. Now they have the nuclear arsenal; it’s infinitely harder to try to get an agreement. If we get one, it will be–the results will be less desirable to us and the price we’ll have to pay will be higher. It’s just elementary math, I think, that’s what the outcome is going to be.


Q: North Korea has been developing both nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, which have the ability to reach the United States. Do you regret that you did not destroy the nuclear facilities at that time?


A: I regret that we didn’t stop them from getting any nuclear weapons. Whether or not it hits the United States, it can hit Japan, it can hit South Korea. Japan and South Korea are our allies. We can’t sit back and see the threat to maybe tens of millions of people. You know, if nuclear bombs are going off in Tokyo and Seoul, it would be a catastrophe of the first order. We have to care about that, first of all, whether or not it can hit the United States. But I am convinced they are going to go to that next stage and to get to a weapon capable of hitting the United States. It’s sort of a nuclear blackmail approach, and to cause Japan and South Korea to worry about whether we would apply our extended deterrence. That was the logic during the Cold War, when the Soviet Union was threatening the United States and Germany. Germany wondered, “Would the United States come to their aid?” The cliche in those days was “Would the United States sacrifice New York in order to save Berlin, or Bonn?” That same question could be asked today.


The way we solved the problem then, at the German request, was we based our nuclear weapons in Germany, with our troops there. And so, we didn’t have an out. We were stuck. We had to defend them. And that gave them the confidence to go ahead. You can imagine the situation perhaps developing today, with either Japan or South Korea. I don’t think it’s desirable, and I think the extended deterrence carried out by our nuclear submarines, say, are sufficient to the job. But I can imagine, I can understand, why the people in Japan and the people in South Korea might want additional assurance. And that could be done by basing nuclear weapons in their countries. I want to be clear, though; I’m not recommending that. I do not think it’s a good idea. I think what we ought to do, what American leaders ought to do, is make it unambiguously clear that we will support the alliance and we will support extended deterrence, we will do the things we have promised to do, and make any–whatever commitment necessary, that’s necessary to assure the Japanese people and the South Korean people that we’ll do that. That’s far preferable to actually basing nuclear weapons in the two countries.


Q: On negotiation with North Korea, what do you think is the role of China and Russia?


A: I’m not sure. I know what China–I have my own view of what China “ought” to be thinking. They ought to be very, very concerned that a war is going to get started on the peninsula, and maybe even a nuclear war. That has to be adverse to their own interests. I think they should be very much concerned that South Korea, maybe even Japan, might go nuclear themselves. That has to be adverse to their interests. The North Korean nuclear program is stimulating actions which, if they occur, would be highly detrimental to China’s interests. They cannot want that to happen. And so they ought to be taking this, I think, more seriously and working more closely to try to get a resolution to the problem than they have been.


But I’m not saying–I’m not pointing to China and saying “You solve this problem,” just like they point to us and say “You solve this problem.” This is a problem that would be solved much better if the United States and China would work together because together they’d make much more powerful incentives and disincentives on North Korea. And had that happened years ago, we might have been able to avoid a nuclear arsenal. Even today, we can minimize the danger of the nuclear arsenal if China would work cooperatively with the United States, as well as with Japan and with South Korea.


Q: President Trump has just finished his first trip to Asia, including meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping. How do you see his accomplishments or performance during his first visit to Asia?


A: On the outstanding issue of the day, which we’re talking about right now, which is a nuclear North Korea, I can’t see that he accomplished anything based on the public reports in the media. I can hope that in the private discussions, which are not yet published, he had some progress. But what has been published publicly, I see nothing of any value, I’m sorry to say, relative to the North Korean problem. I’m not making a more sweeping statement than that.


Q: President Trump tweeted that negotiations are a waste of time. And Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said since 1994 and 2006, North Korea lied and now is not the time for dialogue. Many pointed out that diplomacy is impossible with North Korea. What’s your reaction to that?


A: I say maybe this is not the time for dialogue, that’s debatable. What’s not debatable is this is not the time for a nuclear war. And I’m not sure what the alternative to a military conflict is, except diplomacy. So, I favor diplomacy. I favor talking with North Korea and favor talking with or without preconditions. I’m not at all confident that we’ll get a good result from that, but I am confident we’ll not get a good result if we don’t talk with them, because I am confident that we do not have a viable military option right now.


Q: And, from your point of view, how should the Japanese government manipulate this situation or take a position on the North Korean issue? What’s your advice to the Japanese government?


A: I think that in any consideration on the issue in Japan there ought to be a clear understanding on the part of Japanese leaders of what the consequence of failure of diplomacy is. That while I’m convinced that North Korea is not planning a surprise nuclear attack on Japan, I do believe it’s a possible consequence of a failure of diplomacy, of a failure to talk, and the possibility of an accidental war, a blundering war, happening partly as a result of the reckless rhetoric and the absence of a diplomatic path. That’s complicated, as I say. In the absence of diplomacy and in the presence of reckless talk, we have created the conditions which make–which allow us to blunder into a war, a war which could turn nuclear and which would be very catastrophic. So, I get back to the fact that the Japanese government and the Japanese people, as well as the American government and people, should be looking for diplomatic solutions to this problem.


If I thought there were a viable military option, I’d be pushing it. But I don’t see one. And I see what many people, to me amazingly, fail to see is the huge consequences of a war. As bad as the first Korean War was, a war in the Korean Peninsula that extends to Japan and that goes nuclear would be 10 times worse. And we’re talking about casualties that equal those of World War II! I don’t understand why people don’t understand that. It’s so obvious, so straightforward. And we have to get serious about diplomacy. And the Japanese government should be working to encourage that and to promote it. They can’t do it alone, but they can contribute to it. I’d like to see Prime Minister Abe promoting that in his discussion with President Trump.


Q: And if North Korea gets a nuclear arsenal, the Asian security environment will be changed dramatically. And that will encourage voices calling for Japan and South Korea to consider the possibility of obtaining their own nuclear weapons. How do you see the reasonability for Japan to have a nuclear capability or change the principles on nuclear policy?


A: They do have nuclear weapons. They do have one now and that has changed it. Everything’s changed, as a result of that. Yes, it’s already happening. And there’s already been a dramatic change in the public discussion in South Korea. And to a certain extent in Japan as well, to a lesser extent in Japan but still much greater than in the past. So that now people are considering what would have been unthinkable a decade ago. And it’s easy to understand why people feeling under threat of a nuclear attack might want to have their own nuclear arsenal. Certainly all the nuclear powers have set that example, saying that, “Our nuclear weapons are vital to our security,” so why should we expect Japan, South Korea, and other countries not to say the same thing?


And yet, I’m convinced that this move would be a wrong move for both Japan and South Korea. I do not agree at all with the president’s statement some time ago that it would be “Fine, why not?” I do not agree with that at all. I think [there are] many negative consequences. And the only objective reason for Japan and South Korea to go nuclear themselves is if they did not believe that the U.S. extended deterrence was going to be effective, if they did not trust the United States to protect them. So, it’s a crisis in trust, I think, right now. And it’s up to the United States to overcome that crisis of trust, to convince both the Japanese and the South Koreans that our extended deterrence is strong and valid and would react to North Korea. I think we should be willing to do what we need to do to make that point absolutely clear.


The downside of Japan, and the people in Japan who argue for a nuclear program you can be sure are not chess players. In chess, the famous concept is what’s called “the fallacy of the last move.” It’s when you make a move in chess which you feel very good about because it puts the other side in a bad position. But you haven’t thought two or three moves ahead, to how he might exploit the move you’ve just taken. So, people in Japan think, “We’re going to get a nuclear program and that makes us strong and that protects us.” That’s the first move that’s made. But they forget about the second move and third move, “You do that, what does North Korea do, what does China do? How does China react to Japan getting that?” They will increase their nuclear arsenal. Then you have to increase yours, and South Korea …. you get going a nuclear arms race in Northeast Asia. The consequence of either South Korea or Japan going nuclear is almost without doubt a nuclear arms race starting in Northeast Asia and it’s hard to believe that’s going to be good for anybody.




Q: And the final part is about the gap of the world free of nuclear weapons and the real world. In 2006, you joined three other statesmen, including Henry Kissinger, in calling for pursuing a world free of nuclear weapons. In my understanding, given your experience in the Cuban Missile Crisis and nuclear deterrence to Russia, and the North Korean crisis, you understand effectiveness of nuclear deterrence. Why do you think the United States should seek a world free of nuclear weapons?


A: Well, I think about that because I have actually looked into the “nuclear abyss” a few times in my life, and I don’t like what I see. I really thought several times in my life we were about to go to a nuclear war. We were very close to it in the Cuban Missile Crisis, very close, closer than most people realize. We almost had an accidental launch. That is, we almost started a nuclear war by mistakenly believing that we were under attack. That’s called “the false alarm problem.” And I experienced personally one of those, and I’ve never forgotten it.


So, the prospect of a nuclear war does not seem far removed or academic to me, and the consequence of a nuclear war I’ve also studied very carefully, and they’re unimaginable. It is possible to imagine it, but you don’t want to imagine it. So that motivated me, along with my comrades, Shultz and Kissinger and (Sen. Sam) Nunn, to write an op-ed arguing that we ought to, ultimately, be seeking an end to nuclear weapons and in the meantime working to, doing the various things that could be done, to reduce the danger that they pose. And, for several years, that proposal had pretty good traction. The high point actually came when President Barack Obama, after being elected, made his famous speech in Prague.


Q: And, however, the reality is that Russia reportedly violates the Arms Control Treaty and as you know, the number of countries that possess nuclear weapons, such as India and Pakistan, is increasing, even though the NPT exists. How do we fill the gap between the ideal of “a nuclear-free world” and the real world?


A: For a few years after we wrote our first op-ed, if the ideal was out here and we were there we were moving toward it. Slowly, but moving toward it. The peak of that came, as I said, when President Obama made his famous speech in Prague, stating a serious conviction that the United States would seek a world without nuclear weapons, “peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.” That was the high point of it. Since then, we’re going backward. And today we’re farther away from that goal than we were when we made the op-ed. So, from my point of view, the op-ed was a failure. We not only didn’t succeed in getting–we initially succeeded in getting closer to the goal, but where we stand today is even farther away from it.


And that happened for a number of reasons, but I think the primary reason was that during that period, for reasons unrelated to nuclear weapons, we, the United States and Russia, developed and went from a period of friendliness and cooperation to a period of hostility. It was already beginning at that time but it took a very dangerous turn about 2008-2009. So today, I would say, that we’re recreating many of the conditions of the Cold War. And those conditions don’t lend themselves to people wanting to dismantle their nuclear weapons. Between now and then, though, we actually–you know, we’ve gone from 75,000 nuclear weapons to 15,000 in the world. That’s the good news. The bad news we’re at 15,000. 15,000 is still enough weapons to destroy the planet several times over.


If the United States and Russia–let’s say Russia, with 6,000-7,000 nuclear weapons, used even a third of these to attack the United States, and if by some miracle that will never happen, we were able to shoot down half of them, our country’s still destroyed. There are more than enough nuclear weapons today to destroy our country several times over, and vice versa. So, we’re not only very far from that goal we were setting then, but we’re moving backward. Today, Russia and the United States are both engaged in rebuilding the Cold War nuclear arsenal. So, our effort was a failure, I have to say. It succeeded for a few years but ultimately it then failed.


Q: And my final question is Japan is the only country to have suffered an atomic bombing. However, the Japanese government did not sign the U.N. Nuclear Ban Treaty this summer because Japan accepts the nuclear umbrella provided by the United States. That angered the hibakusha. How do you see the Japanese government’s role on nuclear non-proliferation or a nuclear-free world?


A: Well, the nuclear powers did not sign that agreement or even attend the meetings. And it would have been hypocritical of them to have done so while their security still ultimately depends on nuclear weapons, and while they’re in the process of rebuilding their arsenals. So, they still believe that their security ultimately depends on the nuclear weapons. And so, if they were to sign the agreement, they would have to be prepared to take a different course of action than they’re now taking, and it’s quite clear they’re not. They still–it’s hard to believe they’re going to do that as long as the hostility that exists today continues to exist. And Japan is in sort of the same position. While you don’t have nuclear weapons, your security depends on nuclear weapons, as you see it. In this case, the U.S. nuclear weapons. But that’s what the extended deterrence is all about. So, it would have been hypocritical of Japan to have signed it, really.


Having said that, they might have done more than they did. They might have said some different things, indicating that, in principle, they supported the idea. I mean, there are many things they could have done other than just boycotting the thing. And Japan, of all nations, having suffered Hiroshima and Nagasaki, has some moral stand to take. Actually, the United States, having used the weapons against Hiroshima and Nagasaki, has a moral reason for taking the stand too, but we’re not doing it. Having said that, I’m still pleased that the U.N. resolution was passed. I do not expect any direct consequences from that, but it’s a statement of moral standing, it’s an ethical position, it’s saying, “This is what it should be. It’s not what is; it’s a statement of what should be.” And it’s worth saying that sometimes, even if you’re not able to make it true.


One of my colleagues told me that, back in the day when we were talking about the first op-ed we wrote, and he was saying this was sort of a–“Will be seen as a glorious gesture which has no consequences.” He said, “You can’t judge consequences by what happens this year or next year. Sometimes a strong position of saying ‘This is what is right’ will have a long-term effect.” And the example he used, which is particularly apt for an American, was a statement in an early document in America more than 200 years ago, that “all men are created equal.” At the time our founding fathers made that statement, “all men are created equal,” it was nonsense! We had slaves! They were not equal. Women were not allowed to vote, they were not equal. Even white men who did not own a house were not allowed to vote. So all men are not created equal.


But it was a principle they stated and they believed in the principle. And they’re not being hypocritical to state a principle. And over time, sometimes with great hardship, we moved closer and closer to that goal. But having the goal out there was important. It gives the impetus to moving toward the goal. We’re not there today yet, but we’re a lot closer today than we were in 1776.


And I don’t believe we’d be that much closer had our founding fathers not had the wisdom and the courage to make that statement, “All men are created equal.” So, no nation should have nuclear weapons. Well, that’s not true today. But it’s a principle. It’s what ought to be. And the more people that say that, the more people who talk about it, the more people who think about it, the sooner we’ll get to that position, the closer we’ll move to that position. That’s what I have to say about the U.N. resolution.


Q: Are you an idealist or a realist?


A: I’m a very practical person, a very practical person. I think it’s important to have ideals, it’s important to work toward those ideals. But it’s also important to know what you can “do” in the world today. When I was secretary of defense, I thought about what I could “do” in the world today. And when I looked at a North Korea crisis, I looked at practical steps we could take, both in terms of limiting North Korean nuclear weapons with threats we were prepared to carry out, and in terms of looking to North Korea as a way of understanding what problem they were trying to solve and see if you could help them solve that.


So when I looked at 1999 and negotiated, I was looking at their problem. I was trying to put myself in their shoes and say, “Why are they being so hard to get along with? It’s because they’re afraid that they’re going to be overthrown, the regime is going to be overthrown.” That’s what they’re trying to preserve. I might not share that belief with them, but I have to understand them if I’m going to negotiate with them, that’s their belief, and I’m not going to succeed in negotiations unless I can do something to help them, move them, toward what they want to do.


I was never trained as a diplomat. I don’t have the “golden tongue” of a diplomat. But I came to believe that the tongue is the least important aspect of the diplomat. What he needs are ears. He needs to listen to what the other side is saying, what they believe. That’s what he has to do.


Q: I realized you were a mathematician, I felt still closer to you because I majored in mathematics. How did it make any difference as defense secretary having a mathematics background?


A: Not many people do that. We are a rare breed. It’s hard to say. I don’t remember ever solving any equations when I was secretary of defense. But the training in mathematics, like some of the other secretaries who did physics, training in science, mathematics or physics gives a way of thinking about the problems, a logical way of thinking. And I think that’s valuable. The secretaries I know, who were physicists or scientists trained, at least did not have fuzzy thinking. And that doesn’t mean they were right, but they reasoned through step by step the problems.


Well, you know, I never considered myself a political figure, even though the secretary of defense has to be confirmed by the Senate. They consider it political but I never did; I considered that I was the secretary of defense for both Republicans and Democrats. That is, I thought of it as a nonpartisan position, from a political point of view.


(This article is based on an interview by Senior National Security Correspondent Taketsugu Sato and Yu Miyaji, correspondent in San Francisco.)

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