William Perry, a former U.S. defense secretary and policy coordinator on the North Korean nuclear problem, recalled during a recent interview with Kyodo News how diplomatic efforts from 1999 to 2000 nearly resulted in success.
A series of ballistic missiles and nuclear tests conducted by the current North Korean regime of leader Kim Jong Un has increased military tensions in East Asia to new levels, while U.S. President Donald Trump continues to issue provocative verbal comments aimed at the reclusive country.
As concerns over potential military conflict have heightened in the region, the episode revealed by Perry indicates a missed opportunity for a peaceful solution to the nuclear conundrum, which now seems far from settling in the foreseeable future.
“I think there’s a good possibility that, had we signed the agreement in 2000, it had a distinct possibility of presenting North Korea with a set of options which would include giving up their nuclear program altogether,” Perry said.
In May 1999, as a presidential envoy to Pyongyang, Perry flew over the 38th parallel on the Korean Peninsula for diplomatic negotiations with his counterpart in North Korea. Before this historic trip to Pyongyang, he crafted a comprehensive proposal to be presented to the North Korean government after his intensive trilateral policy-coordination among the United States, South Korea and Japan.
“Our proposal was not just on nuclear. It was much broader than that. It involved a normalization of relations (between the United States and North Korea). It involved the United States setting up an embassy in Pyongyang. It involved Japan and South Korea providing economic assistance to North Korea,” Perry said.
“There were many soft provisions, things that were intended to improve relations, to bring North Korea back into the family of nations again, to be a normal nation. That was really the objective, not just trying to solve that particular crisis, but to give North Korea the means and the motivation to become a normal nation again, so they would not be posing threats in the future.”
During his four-day stay in Pyongyang, Perry negotiated with Kang Sok Ju, a top diplomat and close aide to then North Korean leader Kim Jong Il. Although Perry had no chance to see Kim directly, the former U.S. defense chief said he felt “a virtual presence” of Kim in a negotiation room.
“It means Kim Jong Il was not in the meeting, but he might as well have been, because every…at the end of the day, he (Kang) would lead the meeting and go brief Kim Jong Il, and get instructions,” Perry recalled. “The next morning he’d come back. It was Kim Jong Il speaking, telling them, ‘Well, I heard this but I don’t like that. I like that.’ Kim Jong Il followed the meetings very, very closely, and instructed, every day, Kang Sok Ju what to do.”
Perry concluded that his trip to Pyongyang had borne substantial fruit for a future diplomatic settlement to stop North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs.
“At the end of those four days, we knew we had Kim Jong Il. We not only had Kang Sok Ju’s approval, we knew it was Kim Jon Il’s approval. And when we left Pyongyang, flew out, our team had a long discussion,” Perry said. “We all concluded that the proposal we had made was going to be accepted, but that Kim Jong Il would play it out in his own way, but he was going to accept it.”
After Perry’s mission to Pyongyang, President Bill Clinton stepped up diplomatic efforts by accepting a top military official of the North Korean regime in Washington and sending Secretary of State Madelyn Albright to Pyongyang in October 2000.
The last effort to be made was a U.S. presidential visit to North Korea to finalize a peaceful solution between the two countries. But this scenario was never realized due to domestic political reasons.
“The next month (after Albright’s visit to Pyongyang), we had an election, and the new administration came in. President Clinton could have had the meeting and signed the agreement before that, but he thought he ought not to commit the new president, in the last month or so of his presidency,” Perry said.
After President George W. Bush took office, bilateral high-level dialogue between Washington and Pyongyang was shut down for almost two years. “My view was that they believed that by putting heavy economic pressure on North Korea they could cause the regime to collapse,” Perry said, referring to Bush’s top officials. Bush himself also characterized North Korea as “an axis of evil” in his 2002 State of the Union address.
During the interview, Perry also touched on the military option he considered as defense secretary in 1994, when the first Korean nuclear crisis erupted after North Korea declared it would withdraw from the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty and kicked out inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency.
In 1994 President Clinton “told me to continue preparing the plan for a strike at their nuclear facility. And he told me that I should take a public position that we would not permit North Korea to have a nuclear bomb. I made a public statement on that,” Perry said, recalling the moment.
“Because they were within a few months of being able to make plutonium, once they started the reprocessing. And after they got the plutonium, they could move it out of Yongbyon, put it anywhere, put it in a cave somewhere. We wouldn’t have known where it was.”
Perry said the U.S. government had estimated that the nuclear facility in Yongbyon in North Korea could have produced enough plutonium for six nuclear bombs if it had started operating. “So, if we were going to stop them, we had to stop them before they completed the reprocessing,” he added.
Currently, North Korea appears to be increasing its nuclear arsenal at full speed through reprocessing and uranium-enrichment. Since the end of last year, there have been several reports about a possible U.S. preventative attack on intercontinental ballistic missiles in North Korea, which are thought to be capable of hitting the U.S. mainland.
Asked about the possibility of military conflict on the Korean Peninsula, Perry gave a strong warning on potential devastation in the region. “If the United States makes a military strike on North Korea, then I would put the possibility of that escalating into a nuclear war at probably fifty-fifty.”