William J. Perry, MS, PhD

My Two Days with Bill Perry

Making sure influential members of Congress stand up for diplomacy

On July 4, while many of us were watching parades or flipping burgers, North Korea set off its own fireworks by launching a ballistic missile that could reach the United States. Then, on July 28, it did it again.

President Donald Trump had tweeted in January that such a test "won't happen!" North Korean leader Kim Jong-un said the test was a "gift" to "American bastards" on their independence day.

Taunts aside, this is a big deal. North Korea is now on the threshold of having the ability to attack the United States with a nuclear-armed missile. Korea watchers have been expecting this to happen for 20 years, and now it’s here.

And, as sure as day follows night, political hawks are calling on President Trump to attack Pyongyang. "There is a military option: to destroy North Korea’s nuclear program and North Korea itself," Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) said. "He’s not going to allow — President Trump — the ability of this madman [Kim Jong Un] to have a missile that could hit America."

Sorry, Sen. Graham, but that horse just left the barn.

So what now? Does this mean North Korea is about to attack? Should the United States attack first? Or is missile defense the answer?

No, no, and no.

Ploughshares Fund is committed to seeking a diplomatic solution to the crisis with North Korea. In fact, there is no other fix. There is no good military option. Sanctions are not enough. We cannot outsource this to China. And missile defenses are just not reliable.

We needed to make sure influential Members of Congress would stand up for diplomacy, and push back against the hawks. So we teamed up with the most trusted voice there is on North Korea policy — former Secretary of Defense William J. Perry — and took our message up to Capitol Hill.

I had the pleasure of spending two full days on Capitol Hill with Secretary Perry and his daughter, Robin. We had in-person meetings with a dozen Members on Congress, including Sens. Bernie Sanders (Vermont), Elizabeth Warren (Massachusetts), and Dianne Feinstein (California).

These busy legislators took the time to meet with Secretary Perry because he is widely regarded as the dean of defense intellectuals. He also has years of experience dealing with North Korea. Perry led the Pentagon during negotiations between the Clinton administration and North Korea, which produced the 1994 Agreed Framework. This deal, now defunct, called upon Pyongyang to freeze its nuclear weapons program. It worked for eight years, and then fell apart in the Bush administration. 

Members of Congress were eager to hear Bill Perry’s views on what the United States should do, now that North Korea had developed nuclear weapons and had just tested a new long-range missile. Perry advised them to take the situation very seriously. The United States should aggressively seek negotiations with the North to freeze its nuclear and missile programs. But time is not on our side. We would have to work fast.

Perry also emphasized that there is little danger that North Korea would launch a surprise attack against the United States with nuclear weapons. This would be suicidal, in Perry’s view, because the United States would surely respond to such an attack with devastating force — and Pyongyang knows this. "The North would be toast," Perry said. If there is one thing the North Korean leadership is good at, it is self-preservation.

As a result, the United States should not panic and rush into policy blunders, such as military action. But even though the United States can deter an attack from North Korea, this does not mean we should passively accept it as a nuclear power. A nuclear North Korea increases the chances of miscalculations and accidents that could start an inadvertent nuclear war. Or North Korea could decide to sell its weapons to others. We should still seek to freeze the program and, eventually, to eliminate it.

As Perry told Sen. Sanders, North Korea is "reckless and ruthless, but not crazy. They are open to logic and reason."

Let’s hope the Trump administration is also open to logic and reason, and seeks talks with North Korea before it is too late.