Bernie Sanders talks to the former secretary of defense William J Perry, who served in the Clinton administration. The subject of their chat? How to avoid war North Korea!
Sanders Welcome everyone. This show has a tendency to focus on domestic issues. On the economy, healthcare, education, the environment. We are delighted to be talking about a topic that deserves a lot more discussion: foreign policy. Former secretary Perry, thank you so much for joining us today.
Perry Senator Sanders, the problems you have to face every day are healthcare, budget, education and so on. But there is a real existential danger we face with nuclear weapons.
Sanders There are no ifs, buts or maybes. In a world where many countries have nuclear weapons, this is an issue that we have got to deal with.
Mr Secretary, you and a number of retired senior security officials released a letter recently urging President Trump to begin negotiations – without preconditions – with North Korea over its nuclear program.
In your judgment, why is that the best course of action? Haven’t we tried negotiation with North Korea in the past?
Perry North Korea today has a real nuclear weapons arsenal. That’s very dangerous. But North Korea is not a crazy nation. They are reckless, ruthless, but they are not crazy. They are open to logic and reason.
Their main objective is to sustain their regime. If we can find a way of dealing with them that they can see gives them an opportunity to stay in the regime, we can get results.
Sanders But do you think Kim Jong-un is a leader with whom we can seriously negotiate?
Perry He is a leader with whom we must negotiate. He is working on getting an ICBM [intercontinental ballistic missile]. In all probability, he will achieve that goal within a few years.
Sanders An ICBM capable of reaching the United States?
In the meantime, he already has medium-range missiles capable of reaching Tokyo and Seoul. The problem is here and now. We can do things to stop that and slow him down, and we should be doing those things for our own security.
Sanders You mentioned that Kim Jong-un is not crazy. What do we know about this very secretive regime?
Perry Everything we know suggests that he is just an extension of the Kim family. All of the leaders they’ve had in the past have been ruthless. All of them have been reckless. All of them have pursued a nuclear weapon program.
His main objective is to stay in power. We have to understand, that’s what he’s trying to achieve. Our understanding and our goal would be to lower the danger from the nuclear weapons and, eventually, to eliminate them.
I think its possible to achieve that. It will require some teaming with China. With China, we can put together both the carrots and sticks. We cannot simply point to China and say: “You solve the problem.” We have to work together with them.
Sanders Do you have confidence that China is prepared to do what it takes to develop a nuclear agreement with North Korea?
Perry China is more concerned about the nuclear weapons program in the North than they were a decade ago. But they have to be convinced that the negotiating path that we put together is not designed to overthrow the regime. They are opposed to doing that.
As long as they think that’s the objective, they will not team up with us. If we can convince them that we have the same objective, which is to lower the nuclear danger, then we can put together a [negotiation] package with China.
Sanders If China were seriously involved in that effort, what might that nuclear agreement look like?
Perry We’d have to look at it in two stages.
The first-stage agreement would be to lower the dangers. We’d do that by freezing their missile testing, and by freezing their nuclear testing.
That is an objective in and of itself worth achieving because it would keep them from getting an ICBM. It would also keep them from getting a hydrogen bomb. That objective is worth achieving.
Using that as a platform, we could then work to get them to roll back the nuclear platform. So we’d have to see it, I believe, as a two-stage program.
Sanders And what does one offer them to achieve that?
Perry We need to offer both carrots and sticks.
We and our allies, Japan and South Korea, have many carrots to offer. South Korea and Japan have both offered economic incentives in the past, and would be willing to offer them again. The US could offer security assurances. That doesn’t cost anything, but it’s something we could offer.
The sticks would have to come from China, which would be cutting off the trade they have. They would not do that by themselves. As part of a package, we might be able to persuade them to do it.
Sanders From your perspective, the main goal of the regime is to maintain their power?
Perry That is their goal: to sustain the regime in power. If they see a package that allows them to do that, they may be willing to cut back the nuclear weapons.
Sanders This is a country that has in the past allowed its people to literally starve to death in order to fund a nuclear program. Is that correct?
Perry This is an abhorrent regime. It’s a regime that we rightly detest. But they do have nuclear weapons. We cannot ignore that fact. We have to deal with that fact. Those nuclear weapons pose a threat to South Korea, Japan and, in time, will pose a threat to us –
Sanders Right – and to the whole world.
Perry We have to separate out the variables here. There are the things they are doing that we don’t like, and then there are the things that could cause nuclear catastrophe.
Sanders Right, I get that. But what I’m suggesting is that a country with severe economic problems in a rational situation [might be willing to] accept some carrots that might be offered, at least in terms of economic aid –
Perry We’ve offered them carrots in the past. They are not enough. They’ve demonstrated over and over again that they are willing to suffer economic hardship, they are willing to let their people starve in order to keep the nuclear program. We must learn from that lesson.
Sanders Well, if there’s anybody who knows about that, it’s you. Could you review for us the work you did and what happened?
Perry I was involved first of all as a secretary of defense in the 90s. The first crisis I faced as secretary was a crisis with North Korea. That was in 1994. We nearly went to war with North Korea.
Sanders Remind us, as not everybody remembers that.
Perry North Korea had a nuclear facility at a place called Yongbyon. They were processing plutonium. Had they completed that processing, they would have had enough plutonium to build six nuclear bombs.
We were determined that they should not do that. We confronted them and we threatened them with military action. We offered them economic incentives. A combination of that led to the agreement known as the Agreed Framework which, for at least a period of seven to eight years, stopped the program.
Sanders It did stop the program?
Perry Yes, it did stop the program at Yongbyon. It did not stop their aspirations for nuclear weapons, but it did stop that program.
Had we not had the Agreed Framework, which was signed in 1994, by the year 2000 they could have had as many as 50 nuclear weapons. That bought us time. It didn’t solve the fundamental problem of how they provide for their security. That had to be done in future negotiation.
Sanders Do you have optimism that the approach you are suggesting can succeed?
Perry I have optimism that it can succeed if we take the opportunity. But I do not have optimism that we are going to take the opportunity.
That involves some very sophisticated diplomacy. First and foremost, in forming some sort of a team with China, where we agree on what the objectives are, we agree on what the carrots and sticks we are going to offer them.
If we can put together that diplomatic package, then we have a great chance at succeeding.
But there is a big “if”, there. It requires us dealing constructively and intelligently with China, to make them see we have the same objectives and are trying to achieve the same thing.
Sanders Is there anything that we can learn from the Iran nuclear agreement that could give us some lessons for North Korea?
Perry Yes, I believe so. The Iran agreement successfully – as a minimum – put off the program for a decade or so. That in itself was worth achieving. It also gives us a platform for which we can go further than that.
With North Korea, we should use that as a model. We should use it as a way to delay the nuclear program, and their long-range missile program. I think we can do that. Then we may be able to go further and get the eventual elimination of nuclear weapons in North Korea.
We have to understand, though, that they have regime survival very strongly in mind. They see the nuclear weapons program as a key to that. So they may look to ways to evade the agreement – as they have done in the past – so we should be very wary of dealing with North Korea. But the alternative is very, very stark.
The option of a pre-emptive strike, which we had considered in 1994, is not really there today. A pre-emptive strike has very few upsides, and very many, and very great downsides. So I would not recommend that. I considered it in the past, but I would not recommend it today.
Sanders We have, to say the least, a very, very difficult situation.
Perry Very difficult and very dangerous. It’s not dangerous because North Korea is going to launch nuclear weapons at Seoul or Japan or the United States in an unprovoked way.
They are not crazy. They know that if they did that, the regime would be destroyed. Deterrence does work with North Korea. But the actions they take and the actions we take could lead to some sort of a military conflict. That could well escalate into full-scale war.
In a full-scale war, North Korea would lose. The military power of the United States and South Korea is far superior to theirs. But as they lost, they might use their nuclear weapons.
That’s what’s dangerous. Not that we deliberately enter into a nuclear war, but that we would blunder into a nuclear war. That would be truly catastrophic.
Sanders It truly would.