How should U.S. and allies confront North Korea?

The long-simmering standoff between the United States and North Korea is heating up again. As the Trump administration draws a tougher line with the regime, what options are open to the U.S., its allies and China? Judy Woodruff speaks with former Secretary of Defense William Perry.

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    We return to our top story, North Korea, its missile and nuclear programs, and the tougher line being drawn with the regime by the Trump administration.

    I spoke a short time ago with William Perry, who served as defense secretary under President Bill Clinton. After Mr. Perry left that post, he led a diplomatic effort on North Korea.

    I started by asking how he interprets the Trump administration position that the time for strategic patience is over.

  • WILLIAM PERRY, Former U.S. Defense Secretary:

    I think it means that they're prepared to take more drastic action and they're certainly implying that military action could be a part of that.


    And do you think that that's an approach that is likely to bring about a response from the North Korean regime that the U.S. wants?


    Well, I think that this is an unusually dangerous time, because of both what North Korea is saying and doing and what the administration is thinking of doing.

    My own view is that a military action, while might be appropriate at some time, is not yet appropriate. I think there is still time for diplomacy and there's time for effective diplomacy, but it must be coercive diplomacy. The earlier diplomacy for the last two administrations has been quite ineffective.

    Now, paradoxically, precisely because of the dangers, I think we have the opportunity to conduct some effective diplomacy, although this is going to be coercive diplomacy.


    And what do you mean by coercive diplomacy?


    Diplomacy which threatens actions which are going to hurt North Korea.

    We have in the — past two administrations had sanctions as our element and course of diplomacy, but they were very ineffective and very weak. Now, because of the present situation, we're in a position to provide really powerful disincentives, very powerful efforts, much more so than the sanctions.

    The two changes are that China, which in the past has not shown much concern over the North Korean nuclear weapon, they're now being greatly concerned, seeing that this could threaten their very core interests.

    And, therefore, I think China would be willing at this stage to take very powerful actions in their economy, like holding back food and holding back fuel. On the other hand, the threat of military action against North Korea in the past has not really been a credible one, but I think it may have become credible in the last few months.


    And why do you think the Chinese would be ready to be tougher right now than they have been before?


    They see their core interests being very heavily threatened right now.

    Certainly, a war on the Korean Peninsula would be very detrimental to their core interests. And the possibility of either South Korea or Japan going nuclear are really quite detrimental to their core interests.

    So, having that in mind, I think they're willing to take serious action. I do not see that China can solve this problem alone. I do not suggest that. But China and the United States working together could put together a very powerful set of disincentives that can effect a coercive diplomacy that has good chance, I think, of being effective.


    And when you say the U.S. suggests it's prepared to take military action, isn't there a very real risk, though, that the North could go after, successfully hit South Korea because it's so close?


    I think there is a very great risk in taking military action.

    And I do not recommend that at this time. My point, though, is that North Korea has to believe there is a possibility now, a very real possibility of military action, and that has to affect their calculus on how seriously they will negotiate.

    So I'm not recommending military action, but I think that the threat of military action has become credible to North Korea now. And I think, therefore, they may be much more willing to negotiate seriously.


    And you see the leadership in the North, Kim Jong-un, the people around him, as being rational, thinking rationally about this?


    I think that the regime in North Korea today is not crazy. It's evil and it's reckless, but it's not crazy.

    Their primary goal, which assuredly has been effective for many decades now, is to preserve their regime and power. That's what they're trying to do, and that's their calculus and it's a rational calculus.

    We need to respond to that. And we do not — if we think they're crazy, then we would have to be worried about making a preemptive nuclear strike against South Korea, say. They're not crazy, because they know that, if they do that, that their country will face devastation and their leadership will be swept out of power.


    And what do you think the chances are, Bill Perry, of there being an accident of some sort of that could lead to military action, a misinterpretation?


    The reason I do not favor military action now is because, once a military action starts, it will get out — it will escalate, and is all too easy to get out of control.

    It could escalate on to a total general war. It's a war which North Korea would, in fact, lose, but as they were losing it, and as they saw their regime being swept away and their country being devastated, they might then use nuclear weapons, one last dangerous, but one last sort of an Armageddon, before they were swept out of power.

    So, the danger of nuclear war here is not that North Korea would deliberately start one and provoke like a surprise attack on South Korea. The danger is that we would blunder in a nuclear war by a military conflict, a conventional military conflict and a conventional war escalating into that.


    Finally, how worried should the American people be about this?


    I am very alarmed. I'm alarmed because, if we move into a military action, even a minor military action, the danger of escalation, I think, is very great.

    This is not Syria we're attacking. That is country that undoubtedly would respond with a military response to South Korea. And then, as I said, that action could very well escalate into a general war and even a nuclear war.

    So I'm concerned for that reason. So I think this is an opportunity. This is an opportunity to conduct coercive diplomacy that can be effective. And the question only is, will we see that opportunity and seize it?


    Former Secretary of Defense William Perry, we thank you.


    Thank you, Judy.

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