Advice Column: William Perry on Diplomacy

Stephan Haggard (PIIE) and Kent Boydston (PIIE)



Bill Perry is justifiably respected for his formulation of the two-track approach to North Korea during the Clinton administration under which he served as Defense Secretary during the 1994 crisis; we provided an overview from his book here. In the Washington Post, he updates with a concise statement of his favored strategy, summarized in the title: to confront North Korea, talk first and get rough later.

Perry states the principle concern regarding North Korea’s ICBM capabilities, of which Kim Jong-un recently threatened to test: it is not that North Korea would launch a bolt from the blue but that they would be more inclined to take lower-level risks, the classic “stability-instability paradox” we have highlighted on numerous occasions.

Perry reviews why a conventional strike on Yongbyon, considered by Clinton in 1994, is not a viable option today as this action would be unlikely to destroy North Korea’s nuclear weapons. In 2006 Perry, and outgoing Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, proposed that the US consider a strike on the DPRK’s ICBM launch facilities. Perry rejects this option today because of the greater risk of retaliation to South Korea.

Perry ultimately argues for a renewed push for dialogue with North Korea with tempered ambitions—at least initially—withdrawing even the demand that Pyongyang declare a willingness to denuclearize:

“The goals would be an agreement with Pyongyang to not export nuclear technology, to conduct no further nuclear testing and to conduct no further ICBM testing. These goals are worth achieving and, if we succeed, could be the basis for a later discussion of a non-nuclear Korean Peninsula…

If this attempt at diplomacy fails, then we could consider much more punishing sanctions that would require China’s significant participation. That would be more likely if North Korea rejected a serious diplomatic approach. We could also pursue non-diplomatic approaches, such as disrupting their ICBM tests, not at their launch sites but over international waters. Indeed, our diplomacy would have a better chance of working if the North Korean government realized that we were serious about non-diplomatic alternatives.”

Agreeing to engage in formal discussions without explicit consensus on the goal of denuclearization is seen by some as acknowledging North Korea’s nuclear weapons status. But that is not the real problem: the real question is whether North Korea even wants such circumscribed negotiations as Perry describes. Which leads to the stick side of Perry’s analysis. These include more sanctions—which would require Chinese cooperation that is currently in short supply—but could be augmented by shooting down an ICBM test over international waters. Perry concludes that diplomacy would work better if the US were more serious about non-diplomatic alternatives. If the president-elect’s tough-talk side dominates on the Korean peninsula, this could be the direction we are headed. 

Advice Column Posts

These posts provide short guides to published policy reports by prominent organizations or individuals on North Korea.

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