Former U.S. Secretary of Defense William Perry said he’s skeptical about the chances of obtaining a diplomatic solution with North Korea after its successful launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile this week ― but warned that it must be achieved, because the “alternatives are really very grim.”
In an interview with NPR on Wednesday, Perry ― who served as defense secretary from 1994 to 1997 under President Bill Clinton ― said the U.S. has few attractive options to deal with the reclusive nation and its leader, Kim Jong Un.
Experts have long warned that any physical attack against North Korea may lead to outright war that could kill thousands of people just across the border in South Korea. Perry echoed those concerns, and said one of the only attractive options left, although difficult, is what he called “coercive diplomacy.”
“Our diplomacy needs to be coercive, but we need other elements to coerce with. And I think that’s why it’s so important to have China,” Perry told NPR’s Robert Siegel. “We can’t simply point to China and say, ‘China, you solve this problem.’ But they need to be solved jointly with China. They provide the coercion element.”
As secretary of defense, Perry worked with Clinton to oversee American policy toward North Korea and helped craft coercive diplomacy to temporarily halt the country’s nuclear development. In 1994, the U.S. threatened a military strike against a North Korean nuclear reactor to stop the production of plutonium. Perry wrote in an April article for Politico: “We were serious, and the North Koreans knew we were ― an exercise of coercive diplomacy that yielded an agreement, imperfectly implemented, that did effectively halt the regime’s nuclear progress for a time.”
Such strategies, Perry says, are no longer credible now that North Korea has an array of nuclear weapons and non-nuclear artillery aimed at Seoul, and an ICBM that may be capable of reaching Alaska.
Now, he says, the U.S. needs to forge a successful partnership with China rather than focus on ineffective sanctions.
“The kind of sanctions we can impose ― I would not say they’re pinpricks, but they do not compare in any way with the intensity of the actions that China could take,” Perry told NPR. “They are the primary trading partner of North Korea. They provide their food and their fuel. This missile program could not have proceeded this far without cooperation from China. So we have to have China’s cooperation.”
However, President Donald Trump has grown increasingly agitated with China, and prospects for such a plan are tenuous. The White House has been pressuring Beijing to increase sanctions on North Korea, a prime trading partner. Shortly after the ICBM launch on Tuesday, Trump called on China to “put a heavy move on North Korea and end this nonsense once and for all.”
Perry declined to comment on Trump’s ability to handle the situation, but said his hopes for a diplomatic strategy to form are quickly waning.
“To be honest with you, I’m not hopeful. I’m not optimistic that we will be able to do this,” Perry told NPR. “I think it can be done. I think we can describe a path to success. But that path is a difficult one, and I am not at all confident that we will take it.”