Former U.S. Defense Secretary Considers Diplomatic Options In North Korea
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
What can the U.S. do? North Korea has test launched a new missile. Its range is said to be intercontinental. It could reach as far as Alaska. In response, the U.S. and South Korea held a joint missile exercise off the South Korean coast. Donald Trump, who sounded confident of Chinese help with the North Koreans just a few weeks ago, tweeted his disappointment with Beijing, noting that Chinese trade with North Korea has gone up, not down. And Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has spoken of North Korea's nuclear ambitions as a global problem in need of a global solution.
So what options does all this leave Washington with? Well, joining us is former U.S. Defense Secretary William Perry, who has dealt with and been following this issue for many years. Thanks for joining us today.
WILLIAM PERRY: You're welcome.
SIEGEL: And first, in short, what was your reaction to news of the missile launch from North Korea?
PERRY: I was not surprised. They've been working for a good many years on developing an ICBM. They put it at a very high priority. I and others have forecast they'll probably have an operating ICBM within a few years, and this test was entirely consistent with that schedule.
SIEGEL: You wrote back in April that one development that augured well for renewed negotiations with North Korea was the possibility of full - the full cooperation of China. Is President Trump correct to be dismissive of China's role here? Or do you see a diplomatic way forward that actually still depends on Chinese influence with North Korea?
PERRY: Well, I think it's clear that the diplomatic option, working together with China, will be very difficult to pull off. On the other hand, I think it is the only attractive option we really have, and we ought to be pursuing it. Certainly a pre-emptive strike is not a good option. It would lead to quite likely a conventional military response in South Korea, which could have very serious consequences for our ally and could possibly escalate into something much bigger. So we're down really to what I would call coercive diplomacy.
SIEGEL: But when you say that a pre-emptive strike is not a good option, it's an option that in the past you have said should be at least threatened, and the North Koreans should be aware that it's something we would do if they proceeded any further. Is that - is that as credible a threat today as it was in the 1990s or as you suggested it should have been 10 years ago?
PERRY: No, I don't believe it's as credible today. It was a credible threat in 1994 when we made that threat. But now with the North Korean nuclear capability it is not as credible. I don't think we should count on that influencing our diplomacy. Our diplomacy needs to be coercive, but we need other elements to coerce with. And I think that's why it's so important to have China. We can't simply point to China and say, China, you solve this problem. But they need to be solved jointly with China. They provide the coercion element.
SIEGEL: U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley today suggested that new sanctions will be announced soon. Do you regard new sanctions as being one way out of all this and a potential successful route to resolving the crisis?
PERRY: We've demonstrated for many years now that sanctions by themselves are not sufficient. We have to have a more - a bolder program, a more imaginative program than just putting more sanctions on. And in my judgment, that program involves working jointly with the Chinese where they can put very severe and very punishing penalties on North Korea by withholding trade in food and fuel. This would make a big difference.
The kind of sanctions we can impose - I would not say they're pinpricks, but they do not compare in any way with the intensity of the actions that China could take. They are the primary trading partner of North Korea. They provide their food and their fuel. This missile program could not have proceeded this far without cooperation from China. So we have to have China's cooperation.
SIEGEL: In 1994, you were secretary of defense in the Clinton administration. Since your time at the Pentagon, the North Korean leadership passed from Kim Jong Il to his son, Kim Jong Un. From what you can tell, is the son less reasonable, more unpredictable than the father?
PERRY: I think all three Kims that we have dealt with through the years were leaders who were willing to take brutal actions against their own people and provocative actions, military actions, even, against South Korea, our ally. They're not different in that respect. The difference today is that this leader now has nuclear weapons to back up his provocations. That's the difference, not that there's anything different in their ruthlessness.
SIEGEL: And, Secretary Perry, are you hopeful that this very difficult coercive diplomacy you've talked about can succeed? Or are you feeling pretty grim about things today?
PERRY: To be honest with you, I'm not hopeful. I'm not optimistic that we will be able to do this. I think it can be done. I think we can describe a path to success. But that path is a difficult one, and I am not at all confident that we will take it.
SIEGEL: Does President Trump's stewardship of this issue give you confidence, give you pause? I mean, what's your view of his various statements?
PERRY: What he has said and done so far gives me no basis for making the judgment as to what kind of actions he would take or whether he would actually engage in diplomacy, could be successful. I'm not optimistic. But I'm hopeful because that is what needs to be done. The consequences or the alternatives are really very grim.
SIEGEL: Secretary Perry, thanks for talking with us.
PERRY: Thank you.
SIEGEL: That's former U.S. Secretary of Defense William Perry speaking with us from the campus of Stanford University.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.