Opening speech by Dr. William Perry at the Luxembourg Forum conference in Geneva
Today the eyes of the world are focused on Singapore, where Kim Jong Un and Donald Trump are deciding the future of North Korea's nuclear arsenal;
Which in turn will determine whether there will be a military conflict with North Korea.
We have faced that stark choice before; but this time there is a huge difference in what a military conflict would entail.
Today a military conflict with NK could escalate into a nuclear catastrophe that could result in more than ten million casualties---ten million!
North Korea has enough nuclear bombs, including some thermonuclear bombs, that they could destroy Seoul and Korea, while they themselves were being destroyed.
And the outcome could be far worse if the conflict were to expand, to China, for example.
In my talk I will try to answer two questions. How did we get into this mess? And will the Singapore meeting get us out of it? When I became the American SecDef in 1994 the first crisis I faced was NK.
NK announced their intent to produce plutonium by reprocessing spent fuel from its reactor, which would have given it enough plutonium to make six nuclear bombs. President Bill Clinton determined that it would be too dangerous to allow NK to make plutonium, and authorized me to make a public statement saying that we would not permit them to do so.
NK responded by calling me a "War Maniac". It appeared that NK was not going to back down, so I prepared an option, which I did not announce, for destroying their nuclear facility with cruise missiles armed with conventional warheads. And the State Dept. prepared an option, which they did announce, for sanctions that would have been very damaging to NK.
But NK threatened to engulf Seoul in a "Sea of flames" if the sanctions were imposed. Their threat could be bombast, but we knew that they were capable of carrying out that threat. NK had a huge deployment of artillery at the border that could indeed engulf Seoul in a sea of flames and lead to a second Korean War.
I proposed that before imposing the sanctions, we should augment ou forces in Korea with another 20,000 troops, so if they did follow through on that threat we could stop their troops before they reached Seoul.
In the meantime, Pres. Clinton had authorized former Pres. Jimmy Carter to go to Pyongyang to meet with Kim II Sung. During the national security meeting considering my proposal for reinforcing emerican troops, President Clinton received a phond call from President Carter.
Carter reported that Kim II Sung had agreed to stop NK's production of plutonium and negotiate a diplomatic solution.
I think it is fair to say that this was a successful example of what is usually called "coercive diplomacy".
Amb. Gallucci was appointed to lead the American diplomatic team and in a few months he had negotiated the Agreed Framework.
I believed then as I do now, that this was an excellent agreement, but it was bitterly opposed by some members of the U.S. Congress, who led a continuing battle against it. The U.S., Japan, and South Korea fully complied with the "hard agreements" that entailed building two LWRs for NK and supplying them with fuel oil until the reactors were operational.
But as a result of the intense opposition in Congress, President Clinton decided that it would be politically difficult to comply with the "soft" agreements---the actions designed to move towards a normalization of relations with NK.
NK fully complied with the hard agreements by shutting down the nuclear complex at Yongbyon, but they wanted a hedge; so they started an R&D program in highly enriched uranium at a covert facility. So neither side fully complied with the full intent of the Agreed Framework. The net of this was that the Agreed Framework did prevent NK from building the dozens of plutonium-based nuclear bombs they could have built at Yongbyon by the end of the decade, but:
It did not lead to normalization; and It did not prevent NK from getting a head start on a uranium-based nuclear bomb.
In 1999 a new crisis arose with NK over their test firing of a long-range missile. We saw the test firing as evidence that they must also be continuing work on the development of a nuclear bomb, since an ICBM does not make military sense unless it has a nuclear warhead.
We soon found out that this continuing nuclear work was an R&D program for enriching uranium. So we had a new crisis, with many calls for withdrawing from the Agreed Framework. By this time I was back at Stanford, but President Clinton asked me to come back into the government for a few months to be his special envoy to NK.
I agreed and added comparable envoys from Japan and SK. The three of us worked together as a team and in a few months had prepared a report that described a way forward. The report said that it was time to end our wishful thinking about NK. It called for coercive diplomacy; that is, a combination of---------carrots and sticks. It laid out a rich package of incentives not previously offered to NK, including: ending the Korean War; and diplomatic recognition.
These last two we saw as key steps in normalization, which we believed was necessary to fully end the threat of war with North Korea. In the latter half of 1999 I spent four days in Pyongyang negotiating an agreement with North Korea that would require it to give up its nuclear and long-range missile programs. I left Pyongyang believing that the North was very positive about our proposal.
During the next twelve months there were hopeful signs: A North-South summit meeting; And the two Korea teams marching together in the 2000 Olympics. Then in October 2000 Kim fong II sent his senior military advisor to Washington to conclude that negotiation.
He stopped at Stanford to visit me on the way to Washington and we had very positive discussions. I then went with him to Washington and again the discussions were very positive. By the end of 2000 the deal was ready for signing by heads of state.
But a month later, the Bush administration came to power and cut off all discussions with North Korea, thus walking away from this opportunity to stop North Korea's nuclear program.
I believe the Bush administration cut off discussions because they thought that if they could put enough economic pressure on NK the regime would collapse. But I think this reflected a lack of understanding about how tight and ruthless was the control of the NK regime over their people. In any event, that hoped-for collapse did not happen.
In 2003, the crisis began building up again and China stepped in to promote the 6-party talks. The 6-party talks were hopeful, but those hopes were dashed when NK conducted its first nuclear test.
So while the talks were underway, North Korea was developing and testing both nuclear weapons and long-range missiles. Today they have a medium-sized arsenal of nuclear bombs, including thermonuclear bombs, and a large arsenal of ballistic missiles, including an ICBM that has been successfully tested.
And they continue to build and test. What can we learn from these previous negotiations with NK? I believe that the first and the most fundamental lesson is that NK, at a very high cost, has pursued a nuclear program to ensure the survival of their regime; that is, maintaining the Kim dynasty That was quite obvious to me during the four days I spent in Pyongyang in 1999.
NK believed that the US had the intent and the capability to overthrow their regime, and that a NK nuclear arsenal was the only sure way to deter us from carrying out that plan. One can't learn everything about a regime in four days, but that lesson was absolutely clear to me.
A second lesson is that, in spite of their bluster and threats, they seek "normalization". Indeed, I have come to believe that there will be no peace and stability on the peninsula until normalization is achieved. The third lesson was that NK leaders are not "crazy".
They are despotic; they are ruthless; they are cruel to their own people; but they are not crazy. They have a rationale for their actions---to stay in power---and they have followed that rationale with consistency and shrewdness. I note that all other Stalinist regimes in the world have been overthrown since the end of the Cold War---NK is the last one standing.
So from their point of view, they are doing something right. The fourth lesson is that while they value economic incentives, and will bargain for them, they will never trade regime survivability for economic benefits, no matter how attractive.
Conversely, economic disincentives (sanctions) hurt NK, but by themselves will not cause them to give up their nuclear program. During our negotiations with NK my guiding principle was: "We must deal with NK as it is, not as we wish it to be". And those four lessons give us a clue as to how "it is".
Any agreement must deal with their security concerns and that cannot be achieved through economic incentives alone. Any agreement must address their desire for normalization. And any agreement made must be subject to a rigorous verification process that is included in the agreement.
And that will be very difficult in a country rightly called the "Hermit Kingdom". These are not non-starters, but they do call into question whether the US can quickly achieve its stated goal of full denuclearization, now that NK has a nuclear arsenal. That arsenal provides a deterrent to any military attack by the US, an attack that NK officials believe would be successful.
Believing that, why would they give up the nuclear arsenal that deters such an attack? Or, put another way, what could we offer them that would persuade them to give up their nuclear arsenal and remain confident of staying in power? Would American security assurances do that? I offered them such assurances in 1999, and they were very interested.
But at that time, they did not have a nuclear arsenal, and could not be sure that they could succeed in building one. Thus they were not considering giving up a nuclear arsenal, but rather giving up the right to try to build one.
Perhaps we could strengthen the security assurances we offer them by getting the other participants in the 6-party talks---China, Russia, Japan, and South Korea, to be co-signers of the security agreement.
Verification is critical in any arms control agreement, but particularly so with NK, given its history of breaking agreements. And I do not know of any way of unilaterally verifying an agreement whereby NK gives up its nuclear arsenal. We do not know how many nuclear weapons NK has operational or under construction. We do not know where all of their nuclear facilities are located.
And counting warheads is fundamentally difficult. Our nuclear treaties with the Soviet Union and Russia, counted operational missiles, which we could verify, and inferred the number of warheads, which we could not directly verify.
To this day, the US does not know how many nuclear warheads Russia has in reserve or storage, and the error in our estimates could be in the thousands. So it is hard to understand how we could unilaterally verify a treaty in which North Korea agreed to dismantle all of its nuclear weapons and not build more.
It will take a degree of intrusiveness well beyond that we have previously discussed, and, just as importantly, it would take some progress on the road to normalization. So full disarmament will take some time, and in the meantime we could improve our security by reaching an immediate agreement with NK on a testing ban and a ban on any transfer of nuclear technology or components.
Such an agreement should be easy to negotiate and, once negotiated, relatively easy to verify. In the meantime, North Korea could begin the process of denuclearization while we began the process of instituting security assurances.
Denuclearization is likely to be a long and difficult process, and its ultimate success is tied to progress in normalization, which itself takes time. And while normalization with the US is important, normalization between the two Koreas must be taking place at the same time. Indeed, in some ways, the ongoing talks between the North and South, are perhaps more important than the US-North Korea talks.
I have talked about the 4 things that are the same as in previous negotiations. But one important difference is the robust North-South dialog, and that will be the key to bringing about normalization, which is the key to long-term peace and stability.
The other major difference is that the US president is a Republican. That means, if Trump can get a peace agreement, he can get it supported in the Congress, unlike Clinton, who could not get Congressional support for the Agreed Framework.
That is what I would call the Nixon effect. If any Democratic president had tried to do what Nixon did in China, he would have been rebuffed in the Congress. So if Trump can get an agreement he will have the Nixon effect working for him. In sum: I believe that between the US and South Korea we could set up a process that in the long term could lead to normalization and to a nonnuclear Korean Peninsula; And in the short term, would make us safer through the ban on testing and transfer, and the beginning of concrete steps towards disarmament and normalization.
So very useful results could be obtained from negotiations, but not, I believe, the immediate and full denuclearization that some are expecting. My fear is that the negotiations could result in failure if we enter them with unrealistic expectations.
But I believe that we could negotiate an agreement that would quite significantly improve security on the Korean Peninsula---and that would be a stepping stone to even stronger agreements. Peace and security on the Korean Peninsula could be real; but it will not be quick; And it will not be easy.