William Perry: My Journey to the Nuclear Brink



In the very first sentence of his Forward to Bill Perry's memoir, George Schultz notes that “throughout his life and work, William Perry has distinguished himself as a man of high intelligence, absolute integrity, rare vision, remarkable accomplishment, and an unwavering sense of humanity.” To that should be added an instinct that is all too rare in the current political environment: an ability to sidestep partisan quicksand and to make judgments about national security based on American interests and a strong commitment to diplomacy. A scientist and early tech entrepreneur, Perry had the advantage of understanding core technologies; among his many accomplishments was overseeing the remarkable upgrading of US conventional capabilities in the period prior to the first Gulf War. He could have made a successful career out of his multiple forays into US-Soviet and US-Russian relations alone: early track II efforts, a succession of arms control negotiations, the Nunn-Lugar Cooperative Threat Reduction Program, the Partnership for Peace and a highly prescient opposition to overly-rapid NATO expansion. Academics and practitioners owe him a debt of gratitude for his efforts to institutionalize security analysis through the Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies and the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies.

For the purpose of this blog, his concise and highly-readable memoir is useful for two chapters related to North Korea; his assessment of the first nuclear crisis; and his leadership of the so-called Perry process, an episode that holds important lessons for how negotiations might be resumed.

During the first nuclear crisis, it was Perry’s job to bolster the deterrent and send signals to North Korea about the unacceptability of unloading spent fuel from Yongbyon. Perry walks through a very complex episode of coercive diplomacy. The response to the defueling crisis of April 1994 included an immediate deployment of additional Apache helicopters and a Patriot Air Defense battery. But it also included consideration of additional troop deployments and a cruise missile strike on Yongbyon that was ultimately deemed safe but clearly second best to diplomacy. In an odd quirk of signaling, Brent Scowcroft and Arnold Kanter wrote an infamous editorial in the New York Times that issued an effective threat to strike Yongbyon if fuel were reprocessed, even though such a strike was not planned at the time. Perry believes that this editorial actually had significant effect. He walks through the escalation options he was offering President Clinton just as Jimmy Carter was calling the White House to outline North Korean willingness to negotiate. Perry strongly supported the Agreed Framework, but Carter’s claims notwithstanding Perry clearly believes that a combination of coercive diplomacy and sanctions as well as diplomacy was at the root of the ability to strike the deal.

Of even greater interest is Perry’s discussion of the North Korea review he led at the tail-end of the Clinton administration. This complex episode is poorly understood. The nuance involved is a reminder of how politically difficult it is to undertake successful diplomatic initiatives.

The precipitating event leading to the policy review was the North Korean satellite launch of August 31, 1998. With the Agreed Framework at risk in both the US and Japan, Clinton was pressed by the clamor on the Hill to undertake an outside review. Perry reviews the formation of the team (including Ash Carter, Evans Revere, Philip Yun and Ken Lieberthal) and the intense attention given to briefing relevant members of Congress given divided government. The review also involved the creation of a trilateral structure with Japan and South Korea, represented by Keizo Obuchi and Lim Dong-won respectively.

The tripartite group met no fewer than six times on both sides of the Pacific. The subtle formula hit on by the process was to make “step-by-step progress to comprehensive normalization and a peace treaty…while the North Koreans dismantled their facilities capable of making nuclear weapons.” (The focus on "dismantlement" suggests a hope that the process could accelerate the timetable of the Agreed Framework). At the same time, the strategy rested on drawing North Korean attention to the second fork in the road: the willingness of the US to substantially strengthen deterrent forces by sending additional troops to the peninsula, accelerating the deployment of BMD and taking other actions if North Korea opted for nuclear weapons.

The final piece in the process was to actually engage North Korea, a strategy that has since fallen by the wayside. Some of the most interesting passages in Perry’s discussion center on his insistence on meeting with a military leader (not identified by name). These discussions revealed pretty clearly the intent to continue the nuclear program, the casual use of threats (including to nuke Palo Alto) and the deep military distrust of any diplomacy at all. Perry outlines the brief moment of thaw (if not substantive progress) in 2000 around the North-South summit, including his extensive interaction with Jo Myong-Rok during his trip to the US and the effort to find agreement on missiles.

But the Clinton administration was in its sunset and had waited too long for the initiative to bear fruit. The incoming Bush administration threw it over entirely. Perry’s disappointment is palpable and he subsequently turned his attention to track two efforts, including what he considers a missed opportunity around the visit of the New York Philharmonic.

If not under this presidency, a Perry-like process will have to be revived if there is any hope of denuclearizing North Korea. The question is whether either a Democratic or Republican administration will have the sheer skill at its disposal to pull off a strategy made infinitely more difficult by the succession of subsequent tests and the growing polarization over foreign policy. We could certainly use a few more Bill Perry’s. But the larger problem is that North Korea has changed dramatically in the last 15 years as well, with little sign of interest in abandoning the byungjin line.

Witness to Transformation Reviews of Other Memoirs

George W. Bush Decision Points

Donald Rumsfeld Known and Unknown and related papers: review by Noland; review by Haggard.

John Bolton Surrender is Not an Option; plus a debate with Josh Stanton on Bolton and the neo-cons.

Cheney, In My Time, Part 1; Part 2.

Condoleeza Rice, No Higher Honor, the first Bush administration; the second Bush administration.

Robert Gates Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War

Jeffrey Bader Obama and China's Rise.

Leon Panetta's Worthy Fights

Juan Zarate's Treasury's War

Christopher Hill’s Outpost: Life on the Frontlines of American Diplomacy. The BDA Problem; Things Fall Apart.

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