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William Perry was U.S. secretary of defense during the first Clinton administration and headed the President's Review Committee on North Korea in 2000. At his office in Stanford University, Perry spoke with Global Viewpoint editor Nathan Gardels on July 25. North Korea has announced it plans to test a nuclear bomb on Sept. 9, the 55th anniversary of the founding of North Korea, if it does not by then come to terms with the United States.

NATHAN GARDELS: There has been much controversy of late about whether Saddam's weapons program really was an "imminent threat" to U.S. and world security. You have no doubt, however, that North Korea's nuclear program poses an "imminent threat." Why?

WILLIAM PERRY: Alarmingly, the North Koreans announced last week (in mid-July) they are reprocessing the plutonium that had been frozen under IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) inspections since 1994 and that they intend to use it to make nuclear bombs.

This is a very credible announcement. We know they have spent fuel, and we know it can make about six bombs by the end of this year if they reprocess it. That would give them a total of eight bombs, because we suspect they built two already back during the first Bush administration. We know they've restarted their reactor complex, which means by next year they would have the capability of producing five to ten bombs per year.

The North Korean claim is also credible because recent intelligence reports, if true, show the presence of krypton gases, which is a pretty sure indicator that processing is taking place.

The immediate threat is that North Koreans will use these bombs to threaten South Korea and Japan. They do not have any means of delivering those weapons by missile to the United States. But we know from their missile program that they built some for themselves, but they financed that program by selling products of that missile program to others.

My fear is that they might do the same with their nuclear weapons program. There are plenty of people out there, including terror organizations, willing and anxious to buy nuclear bombs or just the plutonium. If that happens, they might well be used against an American city.

I want to emphasize, however, that I don't think North Korea plans to attack the United States, but that it might well sell weapons to be used against the United States.

GARDELS: How did we get to this point, and what do we do about it?

PERRY: I argued nearly a year ago -- last October -- that the United States should have drawn a "red line" on North Korean reprocessing, as the Clinton administration did in 1994, which would have given us a baseline for negotiations backed by the threat of military force.

The last time around, we got the North Koreans to curtail their nuclear program for about eight years. I don't know if there was anything then, or if there is anything now, which can make the North Koreans curtail their nuclear aspirations. But at least we could freeze it.

This time, I think the North Koreans are looking for a full solution. Admittedly, I don't know what a full solution is since the North Koreans want to keep their nuclear weapons. All we can really expect from diplomacy now is to curtail the threat for now so it recedes from imminence.

The Bush administration has decided not to do this again, instead putting "outsourced" diplomatic pressure (through other countries in the region) and economic pressure on them.

I don't know if that will work in the long run. What I do know is that in the last eight or nine months the North Koreans have gone from spent fuel sitting in cans under international inspection to where they have thrown the IAEA inspectors out, reprocessed the fuel and are in a position to produce nuclear bombs by the end of the year.

Clearly, the Bush approach is not working. That is why I'm so concerned. We need to negotiate with the North Koreans directly.

GARDELS: The North Koreans are asking for some type of "nonaggression" agreement with the United States. Why not go ahead with something like that?

PERRY: Firstly, the important thing is that the United States be ready not just to talk with the North Koreans but to go into negotiations prepared to offer something and to demand something. And we have to be prepared to take yes for an answer.

If I were putting a proposal together, the American side would offer some form of a "nonaggression for security" agreement. You would have to word that carefully, because we cannot tie our hands in such a way that we could not defend South Korea if we had to do it.

But it would be an agreement that says the United States would not initiate an attack with the purpose of overthrowing the North Korean regime.

In addition to that we could look to the South Koreans and Japanese to provide economic benefits, mostly associated with building up trade in the region. That could benefit all parties.

GARDELS: When you faced the last North Korean crisis as defense secretary, you had the U.S. military draw up a plan to use force if negotiations failed. Should the United States "keep its powder dry" as well?

PERRY: Well, last October, as in 1994, we could have taken out their nuclear facility in a surgical strike. It is not clear we still have that option. In the last eight to nine months -- when we have neither negotiated nor taken military action -- they may have already processed the plutonium and moved it from the Yongbyon facility. So, either that option has disappeared, or it will very soon.

The main complication to a military option is that the United States can't do it unilaterally, but only with its South Korean ally. In 1994, the South Koreans were with us. It is not at all clear today that the Bush administration could get South Korea to go along.

In the end, the North Koreans understand military power. And they understand that the United States is the dominant military power in the world. We have substantial leverage, and we ought to be using it.

GARDELS: What about a proposal floating around the Bush administration to "interdict" North Korean attempts to transport their weapons abroad?

PERRY: If I was given the job of stopping a soccer ball-sized plutonium package being shipped out of North Korea, I wouldn't have the faintest idea how to do it. It can go out on a submarine. It can be put in commercial cargo. It's not really detectable. It is a needle-in-a-haystack proposition.

GARDELS: Do you think North Korea accelerated its nuclear program because it saw what happened to Iraq -- it could be invaded precisely because it didn't have a ready arsenal of nuclear weapons?

PERRY: I don't. I think they held that view already. When I talked with the North Koreans a few years ago, before Iraq, they thought then we wanted to attack them. While the war with Iraq fortifies that idea and gives more credence to the hard-liners, certainly that idea existed before.

GARDELS: If Japan is in the direct line of fire, wouldn't it be wise for them to build their own missile shield?

PERRY: Yes. I recommended to the Japanese some years ago, when I was defense secretary, that they participate with the United States in building "theater missile defense" or, for them, homeland defense. It is perfectly reasonable for the Japanese to do this, especially now.

At the same time, it would be unwise to believe a missile defense will fully protect them from North Korea. The North Koreans don't have to deliver their nuclear weapons to Japan by means of a ballistic missile. They can just as easily send them in by plane, by cruise missile or even on ship sailing into Yokohama Harbor.

GARDELS: The Americans talked to Stalin and Mao in the past, why not talk to Kim Jong Il?

PERRY: I don't understand that. They have said that the North Koreans are loathsome and cheaters. Yes, both are true. But sometimes we have to negotiate with people we don't admire because our national security demands it. That is the case here.

(c) 2003, Global Viewpoint. Distributed by Tribune Media Services International.
For immediate release (Distributed 7/28/03)