kim's nuclear gamble
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At the time of this interview, Perle was serving as chairman of the Defense Policy Board, an influential civilian group advising the Pentagon. In the Reagan administration, he served as assistant secretary of defense for international security policy from 1981 to 1987. Perle is highly critical of the Clinton administration's approach to North Korea; in this interview, he equates the 1994 Framework Agreement to extortion: "The basic structure of the relationship implied in the Framework Agreement," he says, "is a relationship between a blackmailer and one who pays a blackmailer." This interview took place on Thursday, March 27, 2003. That same day, he announced his resignation of the chairmanship of the board.

You called the Agreed Framework a bad deal. The St. Petersburg Times quotes you as saying in December 1993, "We're being jerked around by North Korea, and we're appeasing them through feckless diplomacy." What did you mean?

It seemed to me, then, that sometimes there are regimes that you cannot reliably enter into an agreement with. The North Korean regime, at that time, looked to me to be an example. You could have no confidence that they would abide by any agreement that you reached, and it was pretty clear that we were being blackmailed. They would do disagreeable things unless we paid them in some way. I didn't like the aura of blackmail that surrounded that deal, not least of all because the history of blackmail is that it continues -- the price goes up.

What was the alternative?

I rather suspect that we had a wider range of potential responses then than we do today, and that could have included a precision strike to destroy the facility that we were most concerned about.

What the president did in referring to the 'axis of evil' was identify evil where it exists, and to make it very clear that we were going to treat evil regimes with a full recognition of what they represent. ... If the word 'evil' doesn't apply to North Korea, it doesn't apply to any nation.

I never looked at the details of how such a campaign would be conducted. So I would certainly not have recommended that at the time, or even now, in retrospect, because I haven't studied it closely. But it was certainly an option at the time, and I imagine was considered at the time.

William Perry did, in fact, draw up the plans, but they decided instead to go for sanctions. They felt that the consequence in human lives would be too great.

Well, here we are, years later, and we're facing essentially the same dilemma, except now, arguably, the situation is worse.

So perhaps we should have, at that point, struck Yongbyon?

As I say, I haven't studied the details of what would be a very difficult and sensitive military operation. One of the things that we should have done is use the intervening period, recognizing the fragility of the Framework Agreement, to try to improve our position, so that if the North Koreans did violate its essential provisions -- as I believe they have now done -- we would be in a better position today to respond to that. And I'm sorry to say the evidence is that we did very little either to reconfigure our own presence on the Korean Peninsula or to do the other things that one would wish to do to give us a full range of options if we were disappointed -- as we now have been.

You're speaking about military options.

Military options, and even political options.

We were trying. Madeleine Albright was there in Pyongyang, trying to negotiate a missile deal.

I understand.

And when Bush won the presidency, those talks ceased immediately. The criticism that comes from the Clinton camp is that there was no continuity in policy.

I think the break in continuity had to do with the belief that the policy had been wrong -- that when you pay blackmail, you're asking for further blackmail. As it turns out, even while the decisions were being made not to pursue that policy, the North Koreans were already secretly violating the agreement.

Looking back, I honestly don't see how the architects of that agreement can hold the Bush administration culpable for behavior that, in retrospect, should make us reconsider whether the original Framework Agreement was a sensible idea.

I think what they would say is that talks should not have been cut off, that open dialogue should have continued.

That there should have been more blackmail? They wouldn't characterize it in that way, of course, but that is, in fact, what it was and what it remains.

It is the policy of the government of North Korea, in my judgment, to use its capacity to do harm to elicit support from those who might be harmed by actions they would agree not to take. That's blackmail, and it's going to continue. The shape of it, the timing of it, the form of it will change; but the basic structure of the relationship, implied in the Framework Agreement, is a relationship between a blackmailer and one who pays a blackmailer.

This was a policy that was advocated by the South Koreans, under Kim Dae Jung. Kim Dae Jung came to Washington, for instance, early on in his administration and felt rebuffed by President Bush.

I think Kim Dae Jung's interests, and the interests of the South Koreans, are not at all identical to ours. They have an interest in doing everything possible to avoid military conflict, and it's understandable. Seoul is within artillery range of thousands of North Korean artillery tubes. They would much prefer to take a risk that North Korea will become not only a nuclear power, but the nuclear bread basket of the world, building and selling nuclear weapons, as they are now building and selling missile technology, and anything else they can lay their hands on.

From the South Korean point of view, that is a lesser immediate threat than artillery landing on Seoul. So it's hardly surprising that the South Koreans are going to see this differently from the way we see it. But our president has, first and foremost, a commitment to the security of the United States.

The criticism of the Bush administration would be that it, in all of this tough talk and rebuffing the Sunshine Policy, that they have failed to get to the negotiating table, and that things have only gotten worse. [Ed. Note: The "Sunshine Policy" is the policy endorsed by South Korea advocating diplomatic and economic engagement, rather than isolation, with North Korea.]

I don't agree with that, obviously. The Sunshine Policy, we now know, involves a lot less sunshine, a lot less light than heat -- massive payments, as I understand it -- in order to stage meetings that have political ramifications within South Korea, without any significant movement by the North Koreans in any direction that's any way helpful. So the Sunshine Policy has simply not succeeded. It's a failure.

But talking tough has resulted in them starting up the plant at Yongbyon again.

No, I think that's a kind of post hoc ergo propter hoc argument. It is true they have started up, or attempting to start up, the reactor at Yongbyon. But to attribute that to the statements and the policies of this administration, rather than a North Korean effort to apply blackmailer's pressure, I think is quite wrong. I think this is another step in the continuing process of threatening to do menacing things in order to elicit payment.

Did the Bush administration move the goalposts, effectively, from what were the goalposts established during the Clinton administration?

I would hope that we would move the goalposts, because we didn't like the playing field that was established during the Clinton administration. It was a playing field on which we were expected to pay the North Koreans not to do dangerous things, and that is not a sound basis for a policy.

How did 9/11 change our foreign policy towards North Korea?

I think 9/11 changed American thinking about a great many issues, not simply how to deal with North Korea. I think the essence of that change was the realization that it is possible to wait too long before coming to grips with a threat, a serious threat.

We waited too long to deal with bin Laden in Afghanistan. Everything we did after Sept. 11 could have been done before Sept. 11, in a practical military sense, with one important difference: Had we acted before Sept. 11, we would have saved many American lives. We had a reasonable prospect before Sept. 11 of decimating Al Qaeda, because they were all in one place. Now, we're chasing them around the world, 3,000 Americans are dead, and we have a chronic extremist fanatical terrorist problem on our hands. We simply waited too long to recognize the magnitude of the threat and to take action against it.

Are you saying we should go to war against North Korea now?

No, but I'm saying we should not be dilatory in dealing with threats that are so clearly emerging and that we ultimately are going to have to find a way to deal with.

But if we're not talking to them, nothing's happening, and they're building bombs. So what should we be doing?

What I think we should be doing -- and this, like I everything else I say to you, is my personal view -- is I think we should be putting it to those countries who are in a position to bring great influence to bear on North Korea, the Chinese especially. Our proposition to the Chinese should be, "We think the world will be a lot better off if the North Koreans choose not to proceed down this path, but we are determined not to allow them to proceed down this path. We would like your help in resolving this peacefully." Because the alternative to resolving it peacefully is to resolve it as the Israelis dealt with a similar emerging threat in 1981, when they found it necessary to destroy the reactor that was going to produce the nuclear material that presented an existential threat to them.

But the situation is quite different here, in that a strike on Yongbyon is likely to produce another Korean War, with hundreds of thousands, if not over a million, people dead.

We don't know whether it would produce another Korean War.

But that's a risk.

Of course, it's a risk. There's a risk in everything we do. There's a risk in doing nothing. There's a risk in continuing to pay blackmail to the North Koreans. I believe that we should be in a position to impress upon the Chinese their interest in a peaceful solution to this.

Now, we have other options too. We're concerned, and I think rightly, about the export of weapons from North Korea, including potentially nuclear weapons or nuclear material. We could blockade North Korea. It would require the cooperation of some other countries, so they couldn't do by land what we could prevent them militarily from doing by sea.

The Chinese have said that would cause them to resort to force. They've said U.N. sanctions would cause them to resort to force.

What's at issue here is whether we will be intimidated by threats from the North Koreans, or whether we will examine a range of policies, all of which entail some risk that North Korea might use force.

China is saying, "Talk to the North Koreans. Don't wait around for them to agree to multilateral talks. Talk to them."

I think multilateral/bilateral is not the issue. The question isn't in what structure, in what forum, is there a discussion; the question is what is said by us and by them. We could go into talks if we had complete confidence that we had the full support of the Chinese and others, because then we would be in a position to say, "No one is going to help you unless you take the appropriate action, which includes terminating this nuclear weapons program."

So my answer to the Chinese would be, "Don't advise us on how and where to talk. Tell us what you're prepared to do to produce an outcome that we all understand is in the best interests -- not only of the United States and the South Koreans and China, but the whole world."

So, at some point, if the Chinese do not agree to come along, and the Japanese, the South Koreans, and the Russians, if we can't get some kind of consensus, we're going to have to talk on their terms at some point?

No, we're not going to have to talk on their terms at all. We're going to have to decide what we want to do in light of the hypothetical inability to gain support from others in the region.

I'm not pessimistic about gaining support. I think we can gain support, and I think we will. But how effective we are in gaining that support depends on how we see our own options. If we slide back into the blackmail process, everybody in the region is going to say, "That's great. Americans are prepared to pay. This is the easy way out. It's fine with us. Let them pay."

Those that backed the Agreed Framework believe that diplomacy can work with North Korea, because they're rational; they want to survive. They were appalled -- Defense Secretary Perry, for instance, or Gallucci -- at the use of "axis of evil." Doesn't this make diplomacy just harder? How is that helpful?

No. Look, with all due respect -- and I have great respect for Bill Perry -- I don't believe that for a moment. I don't think Kim Jong Il is a sensitive man who was offended by the use of the word "evil" to apply to his regime, and--

He's a paranoid man who is not comforted. We're making a paranoid man more desperate.

Well, I must say the way to deal with paranoids is not to feed their paranoia, and it is certainly not to avoid using language that accurately describes the situation; as "evil" surely does in relation to North Korea.

But doesn't that feed his paranoia?

No, I think what feeds his paranoia is what he knows we are capable of doing militarily, and if you take that off the table, you may relax his paranoia, although he probably won't believe it anyway. But you do it at the expense of giving up most of your leverage to affect their decisions, if they're rational. And I wouldn't assume that they're rational.

Let me ask it this way: What did we gain, what did the president gain by calling the North Koreans part of the axis of evil?

When I heard the president say that, it reminded me of Ronald Reagan referring to the "evil empire," and exactly the same response was heard -- what did the president gain by calling the Soviet Union evil at a time when we were trying to figure out how to manage the relationship with them?

What he accomplished was he set in motion the political campaign over the legitimacy of Soviet rule that led, ultimately, I believe, to the collapse of the Soviet Union.

What the president did in referring to the axis of evil was identify evil where it exists, and to make it very clear that we were going to treat evil regimes with a full recognition of what they represent. This isn't biblical evil, although some people think it is. This is evil as any normal person would use the word -- a regime that brutalizes its own people, that engages in acts of terror, that exports weapons all over the world.

If the word "evil" doesn't apply to North Korea, it doesn't apply to any nation.

I don't think the argument is that evil doesn't apply to Kim Jong Il. I think the argument is that it does not have any real benefits. It's not as if we didn't already know that this place was nasty and dangerous. So what does the president gain?

I think he breaks with the previous policy that said, "Well, they may be evil, but we're going to treat them as if they could be counted upon to respect an agreement. We will sit down and we'll listen to what they have to say, and we will feed them, we will provide fuel for them, we will build nuclear plants for them." In short, "We will deal with them in a way that we would not deal with a nation whose fundamental evil quality was properly understood."

They did shut down the plant at Yongbyon; they did respect the Agreed Framework to the letter. What they did is they hedged their bets, and some people would say they hedged their bets because they continued to distrust even the Clinton administration, whose attention wandered once the crisis was over and relations soured.

Well, you use the term "hedge their bets." I would use the term, "They violated the agreement."

Well, that, too. But why did they do it? They did it because they felt that they needed to hedge their bets.

They did it because they only have one thing to offer the world, and that is weapons, including weapons of mass destruction.

The Agreed Framework is effective in that the Yongbyon plant was shut down. [If it had remained functioning,] they could have made 50-60 -- or, some people say, over 100 -- bombs by now.

If they could have made 50 or 60 or 100 bombs, they will make 50 or 60 or 100 bombs, unless we deal decisively with them. The problem with the Agreed Framework, setting aside all of the details, is that it was vulnerable to a change in North Korean policy at any time, at a time of their choosing and under circumstances of their choosing. I'm only grateful that we didn't have two reactors up and running, producing huge quantities of nuclear material, before they decided to reduce their policy, withdraw from the IAEA safeguards and embark on the course they have.

Jim Kelly went over there in October 2002 and confronted them with evidence that they were purchasing materials from the Pakistanis and others and building a highly enriched uranium program. Ever since that time, things have gotten only worse. Where are we headed here?

I don't know where we're headed. We've got to finish Iraq, I believe, before we can turn our full attention to other issues of this magnitude. I expect that there will be an evolving policy, but I don't know where it's headed.

But meanwhile, Kim Jong Il can continue to build bombs. If that's what he's up to right now, he can continue to do it. What's to stop him?

Once he gets his reprocessing facility up and running, he can indeed convert spent fuel rods into weapons-grade material.

And what's the United States going to be able to do to stop that?

I don't know what the American policy is going to be. I think we have a number of options. I already indicated some of those.

But those options have to include military options to take out that facility.

No, not necessarily. There are--

But among those options--

I think if you take that option off the table, your ability to get a diplomatic or political solution is greatly diminished. I think Bill Perry understood that, too, as I understand it.

That's correct.

He saw an important link between whatever we attempted to do politically and the capacity to take military action. I think that's as true today as it was then.

I would put the emphasis, if it were up to me, on our military capacities, as a way of enjoining the Chinese, and others to cooperate in a nonmilitary solution, because they have to assess the impact of a military solution on them, and I'm pretty sure they will not find that agreeable.

Can the North Korean regime be stopped from building nuclear weapons?

There's no question there are a variety of ways in which the North Korean regime could be stopped. It could be stopped by enough pressure from countries surrounding it, with or without a blockade to prevent nuclear weapons from leaving the country and winding up, possibly, in the hands of terrorists. It could be prevented by a precision strike against the facilities that are producing these weapons. There are a variety of ways in which they could be stopped.

What would be the consequences of a strike on Yongbyon, do you think?

I think it's very difficult to answer that.

But it's a question we have to ask before we do it.

It would depend, importantly, on the circumstances surrounding it, on whose support we had gathered and whose we had not gathered, on how military forces were arrayed at the time. There's so many issues involved that it's simply not possible to say. And let me be clear: I have not come to the conclusion that we should take military action against North Korea.

But in terms of level of difficulty, is this a much more difficult problem, in your view, than, say, Iraq?

I think Iraq has been a very difficult problem, and so is this one. I don't know how to compare the two. They're different in many respects.

People are saying, "Look, we're willing to attack Iraq preemptively to take out the threat that they may, in the future, attack us in some way or supply terrorists with weapons to attack us." Are we going to do the same thing in North Korea?

I don't know what we're going to do in North Korea. The situation in Iraq has a long history, as you know, including two invasions across their national borders, a war that ended in a cease-fire -- the terms of which have been consistently violated -- and a conviction that as long as Saddam Hussein is in power, we can have no confidence that he is disarmed.

The North Korean situation is very different in almost every respect, politically, militarily, economically. I don't think one can compare the two, except in the sense that both are threats to our interests and the interests of others who might suffer if nuclear weapons are sold around the world.

I think we have to assume that the North Koreans, who have nothing else to export, would, given a chance, export nuclear weapons.



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