Advice Column: William Perry on Diplomacy

Stephan Haggard (PIIE) and Kent Boydston (PIIE)

January 19, 2017 7:00 AM

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. 

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



I reject the notion that the Kim regime really cares about international respect. Its ideology is based on racial supremacy and xenophobia. It doesn't really care about the economy much either. For all the ink spilled about byongjin, this is still the military first state. The hopeful reading of Bob Carlin that North Korea would declare victory on the nuclear issue and move on to important things like economic growth at the party  congress went unrealized. Andrei Lankov, another who has jumped on the talk to North Korea bandwagon is sounding more optimistic about Kim Jong Un's economic record these days than Kim Jong Un himself. In order to assess North Korea's true priority, we must read what it tells us. The first thing North Korea said after its January 2016 nuclear test was that it was "bringing earlier the final victory of juche." Further on, they say that, " genuine peace cannot be attained at the negotiating table." This is because as Kim Jongil is quoted as saying, "Just as a jackal cannot change into a lamb, so too the Yankees cannot change their nature." Thus, a negotiated peace with North Korea is impossible on account of its ideology. Further, Secretary Perry is ignorant of or deliberately put down the memory hole the entire Six Party talk process, including the 2005 Joint Statement, the Sunshine Policy, the Leap Day deal, and an innumerable series of Track 2 meetings, Rodman visits, Clapper and Clinton hostage negotiations, Bill Richardson's supplications, and Eric Schmit's profiteering.

Edward Dong

Thank you for this piece.

The Chinese have gone along with the UNSC sanctions process against the DPRK, but there has always been a push that we should have a negotiation with Pyongyang.  "Sanctions are not the end objective.  Denuclearization is," say the Chinese, not without reason.  Our posture has been, however, to include some Chinese entities in the sanctions process and, for deterrence purposes, adopt some measures like THAAD, which rightly or wrongly upset the Chinese but which also erode shared stances among China, the ROK, and us. While the Chinese might well be encouraged by a willingness by us to negotiate seriously with the DPRK and might then, as Dr. Perry suggests, be more willing for a much tougher set of measures against Pyongyang, that is an awful lot of "mights."  Moreover, it might also be the case that there could be a sharp downturn in U.S.-China relations, with no hiving off of the Korean Peninsula issues from that dynamic (with all sorts of implications for our relations with South Koreans, and their own diversity of views -- something that Professor Moon Chung-in discussed in the Hankyoreh before coming to San Diego).

Then there is the issue of the price for a temporary freeze.  That might include some show of reduction of exercises or maybe some humanitarian assistance.  The domestic American and South Korean politics will feature in those considerations, particularly if the freeze can be ended easily.  The absence of an inter-Korean process is not helpful nor is the uncertainty of what U.S.-ROK and U.S.-PRC and, importantly, PRC-ROK relations will look like.


Our posture has been, however, to include some Chinese entities in the sanctions process

We included one Chinese company in the sanctions process. Not even some. One. Before this, it was more or less official policy (strategic patience) to outsource the North Korea problem to a China that refused to enforce sanctions well before THAAD. Even John Kerry said after the fourth nuclear test, "China had a particular approach they wanted to take, and we went along with it." We have given China enough "space" and "flexibility" to use Obama's words to Mendevev. The Chinese government will never take a hard line on North Korea, but a Chinese private sector threatened with US sanctions just might.


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Stephan Haggard Senior Research Staff
Kent Boydston Former Research Staff

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