North Korea’s Nuclear Program
Donald Trump’s taunt of Kim Jong Un as “little rocket man” was just an extreme example of the long-standing narrative of North Korea as a hopelessly backward country led by cartoonish villains, rogue maniacs looking for an excuse to launch a war against the West. But is this accurate? In this episode, we look back at the history of North Korea’s nuclear ambitions and talk with people who have actually met and worked with North Koreans, to try and understand their motivations and what the future holds for this dangerous relationship.
The story veers back and forth between crisis and resolution and a new crisis. In 1994, North Korea announced they were beginning to remove plutonium from their reactor to make weapons-grade material. President Bill Clinton responded by declaring this a red line, and asked his new Secretary of Defense, William Perry, to draw up plans for a missile strike on their reactor. In the middle of a tense White House meeting preparing for potential war, they received a phone call from former President Carter that he had negotiated a deal to stop the reprocessing.
But in 1999, a new crisis flared up when North Korea started testing long-range missiles. President Clinton again called on William Perry, who was out of government by then, to lead a negotiating team in partnership with South Korea and Japan, in what came to be called the Perry Process. Once again, a promising deal was agreed upon. But this too fell apart when the incoming Bush administration surprisingly jettisoned the deal, choosing an aggressive strategy of sanctions and regime change. Despite this pressure, the North Koreans pushed ahead to develop a sizable nuclear arsenal, and missiles capable of delivering nuclear warheads to much of the United States.
William Perry describes his role in the first two Korean crises, and how he was personally threatened with a nuclear attack by a North Korean general. Philip Yun worked was with Perry during the 1999 negotiations, and discusses his perspective as a Korean-American. Dr. Siegfried Hecker tells his remarkable story of visiting North Korea multiple times in the early 2000s and seeing their reactors up close and personal. Dr. Jeffrey Lewis, an expert on nuclear North Asia, describes what we know about today’s North Korean arsenal and ballistic missile program. Our guests speculate on the future of that program, the danger to the U.S. and the West, and the prospects of any type of nuclear deal with “The Hermit Kingdom.”
Fire and Fury in the Hermit Kingdom: North Korea’s Nuclear Program
Sen. John McCain: This crazy fat kid that’s running North Korea. He’s not rational, we’re not dealing with…even with someone like Joseph Stalin, who had a certain rationality to his barbarity.
Lisa Perry This is Lisa Perry, and you’re listening to AT THE BRINK, a podcast about the dangers we face from nuclear weapons, and the stories of those who are fighting to protect us.
North Korea—perhaps one of the strangest countries in modern existence. It is governed by a ruthless dictatorial dynasty that is centered around a cult of personality bordering on a national religion. Having isolated itself from the rest of the world for the past 70 years, The People’s Democratic Republic of Korea is an enigma to the western world.
Their extreme isolation has fed a narrative about a hopelessly backwards country led by cartoonish leaders — we laugh at their bad haircuts, their silly Stalinist rhetoric and their undying love of Dennis Rodman. Their Supreme Leader is often depicted by the press and by American politicians as equal parts incompetent and insane, hellbent on launching a nuclear war against the West.
In this episode, we'll unpack this “crazy” narrative, to understand why North Korea has pursued nuclear weapons, and try to get to the truth of what North Korea really wants. To do that, we’ll talk to some of the few Americans who have crossed the 38th parallel, and who have dealt directly with the North Korean government.
North Korea hasn’t always been so obsessively focused on nukes as they are today. In fact, in 1985, they voluntarily joined the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, or NPT, an international treaty which prohibited them from developing nuclear weapons. At the time, they were still under the security protection of their comrades in the Soviet Union. But when the Soviet empire collapsed at the end of 1991, that protection vanished. Soon after, North Korea began secret efforts to manufacture weapons grade plutonium, in order to develop their own nuclear arsenal.
By 1993, Pyongyang announced it was planning to remove the fuel rods from their nuclear reactor, providing them enough plutonium to make up to 10 bombs — and the first North Korean nuclear crisis had officially begun.
My grandfather, Bill Perry, had just stepped into his role as Secretary of Defense as this crisis began heating up. President Clinton declared that the North Koreans were about to cross a red line.
William Perry But the president was clear that he wanted to threaten them with military action if they went ahead and did it anyway. He thought it was worth the risk of military action, as opposed to letting them have nuclear weapons. Although he understood and certainly I understood that a relatively minor military action could easily escalate. It was the escalation issue that we were concerned about, not the action itself and the specific action which I prepared a plan for was a so-called surgical bombing of the reactor facility
Lisa Perry A lot of people have called for military intervention in North Korea. And it’s easy to understand why.
Despite our limited information, it is undeniable that the North Korean government is horrifying. It has locked tens of thousands of political prisoners in brutal labor camps; allowed millions of its citizens to die of starvation; aggressively suppressed free speech and access to information; and threatened and attacked its neighbors. This is not a nation we want to have nuclear weapons.
The U.S. has gone to war for much less, so why do we not just step up and end the problem once and for all? One critical reason: Geography.
The border between North and South Korea, the so-called DMZ, or demilitarized zone, is only 30 miles from the South Korean capital of Seoul, a metropolitan area with more than 25 million people. The North has the fifth largest army in the world, much of it based near the DMZ, with massed artillery pointed directly at the Southern capital. A war with North Korea would be catastrophic.
William Perry That we would win is essentially true. But the question is, what does winning mean if there are a million casualties in South Korea; in what sense is that a win?
Lisa Perry In June, 1994, Clinton’s national security team met to approve a cruise missile strike on the North Korean reactor, and to discuss how to manage the possible reactions to such an attack. My grandfather said that at the time, it felt like choosing between a disaster and a catastrophe.
William Perry It was a meeting of the President Clinton's security cabinet. At his request, I was laying out the military options that were available. The cruise missile option was simple enough, that wasn't the issue. The whole issue was how North Korea would respond to that. Whether they would respond to that by sending military forces into South Korea. I told the President we ought to be prepared for that.
Lisa Perry As they were drafting plans for the possibility of war on the Korean peninsula, something rather astonishing happened.
William Perry And so what we were discussing with the president was how many military forces to send in, when to send them, and in the middle of our meeting, an aide came into the cabinet room and told the president that President Carter was on the phone wanting to talk with him.
Lisa Perry In a completely unexpected turn of events, former President Jimmy Carter had traveled to North Korea and met with their aging leader, Kim Il Sung. This was an historic moment. It was the first time in history any U.S. president, past or present, had ever visited the nation. To everyone's great surprise, Carter was calling the White House to tell them he had brokered a deal.
William Perry Basically he was offering to stop the reprocessing. And he wanted President Clinton to agree not to take any action. President Clinton wanted a commitment, a firm commitment from Kim Il Sung, then he would take his action. President Carter went back to Kim Il Sung with that proposal and Kim Il Sung accepted, and the whole crisis was over
Lisa Perry And just like that, the plan for a war with North Korea was put back on the shelf.
This breakthrough led to direct negotiations between the U.S. and North Korea, which culminated in the so-called Agreed Framework. North Korea agreed to rejoin the NPT, let in inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency, and put brakes on their nuclear program. In exchange, we agreed to help them with their energy needs by supplying them with fuel oil and a lightwater reactor, a type of reactor which could not be used to create bomb fuel.
The Agreed Framework was signed in October of 1994. It held until 1998, when a new Korean crisis emerged. This time, it started with North Korea testing a new class of ballistic missile, called the Taepodong. All jokes aside, these missiles were a serious concern, since they were capable of reaching South Korea, Japan and parts of the United States. But the missile itself wasn’t the biggest problem — it was what the missile implied, as my grandfather explains.
William Perry While we had an agreement with North Korea not to pursue nuclear weapons, they started in 1998 testing long range missiles, which we took as evidence they must have a covert nuclear program, which turned out to be true, by the way. Long range missiles don't make any technical sense unless you have nuclear weapons on them. You don't fire an ICBM and put a 500 pound high explosive bomb on it.
Lisa Perry To deal with this new North Korean Crisis, President Clinton decided to bring in someone with experience dealing with North Korea , as Phillip Yun describes. Philip is now President of the World Affairs Council of Northern California, but in 1998 he was an advisor at the State Department.
Phillip Yun William Perry, who had just retired as Secretary of Defense it was decided that he would be the ideal choice because he was so respected by people on both sides of the aisle. And so I was lucky enough that I was eventually appointed to assist him. I learned an incredible amount from William Perry about this process.
Lisa Perry My grandfather had left government and was back teaching at Stanford when the request came in. After agreeing to take on the task, he concluded that success could only be achieved if our negotiations included our key allies in the region.
Phillip Yun I think one of the biggest contributions at the end of all of this was that Bill Perry wanted to make sure that the policy was going to be owned not only by the United States but by Japan and South Korea. Bill Perry was so adept at doing this that by the end of this, we called this Policy Review the Perry Process.
Lisa Perry The culmination of the trilateral talks came when my grandfather asked the leaders of Japan and South Korea to allow him to speak directly for them in the negotiations with North Korea — it was a measure of how much trust they had built when both leaders readily agreed. Their success with the trilateral process was encouraging for the American team. But they were still apprehensive about how they would be received by the North Koreans. For Philip Yun, the apprehension he felt stemmed from much deeper roots.
Phillip Yun You know being of Korean American heritage, as a young person, I had this notion of North Koreans as these all powerful big sort of omnipotent boogeymen. I had nightmares growing up because I had a babysitter who basically said when I was like two or three years old that if I didn't behave North Korean soldiers would take me away. So I had in the back of my mind these images of what North Koreans were going to be like. And when I actually met them it was very very different. They were very quiet. At that point in time, they were wearing very outdated clothing. Roy Orbison glasses, sort of leisure suits very old fashioned haircuts and they weren't this all powerful omnipotent sort of being.
Lisa Perry But it wasn’t the diplomats in their leisure suits who gave them trouble. My grandfather recalls that their very first meeting was with a senior North Korean general, who began their meeting by declaring that he had no interest in talking with them.
William Perry I asked the senior general what was their major concern? And he told me bluntly, it was protecting our regime from overthrow. And I said, overthrow by whom. He looked at me in sort of an astonished way he said by you, by the United States. He went on to say, and we won't let that happen. And we have a nuclear arsenal to keep that from happening. And then to make his point, he said if the United States attacks North Korea militarily, we will use our nuclear weapons and you will find nuclear weapons landing in the United States. And then laughingly he said, not excluding Palo Alto, which is of course my hometown.
Lisa Perry Despite this unpromising beginning, the Perry team soon learned that their diplomatic counterparts were actually interested in a deal -- but they had bitter feelings about the Agreed Framework. From the beginning, the Republican-led Congress had loudly opposed it, and worked to undermine the U.S. from being able to completely fulfill its part of the deal. Although North Korea has a history of not living up to international agreements, in this case, it was the Americans who hadn’t kept their side of the bargain.
Phillip Yun They had the experience of the Agreed Framework several years prior where everything was getting delayed and they thought it was just our way of letting them sink further and further down. And if you talk with some North Koreans they say the 1994 agreement snookered the North Koreans
Lisa Perry The team needed to convince the North Koreans that they would benefit from an agreement this time around. Contrary to the media narrative about North Koreans eager for war, my grandfather would discover in these negotiations that what they were truly interested in was normalization of relations.
William Perry I'd say, 90, 95% of our discussions were talking in some detail about the positive benefits, the carrots that (we were going to) offer, which were not primarily economic by the way, as most people think, they were primarily diplomatic, We were still technically at war with North Korea. So I was offering that we would sign that peace agreement with them. And then we would set up an embassy. Those are the two primary incentives, political incentives, which I was offering the North, which they were greatly interested in. And that was sufficient to them that they were willing to stop the nuclear program. That was the agreement that I made with them, which I returned to Washington. And by this time it was 2000, and I thought we had the problem pretty well resolved at that stage.
Lisa Perry Back in Washington, my grandfather and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright announced the good news about the verbal agreement.
Perry Press Conference: If the North Koreans will forgo long range missiles as well as nuclear weapons, then we should be prepared, we the Allies, to be prepared to move step by step in a reciprocal fashion to normalization. Normalization of political relations, normalization of economic relations.
Lisa Perry But a verbal agreement is a long way from a written agreement. Now it was up to the North Koreans to finalize the deal. At first they seemed to be stalling, but by the fall of 2000, the process was coming to a conclusion, and my grandfather was hopeful. But near the end of the year 2000, something happened that suddenly put the whole agreement into question.
Newsclip: “George Bush, the governor of Texas, will become the 43rd President of the United States”
Lisa Perry Because the North Koreans had waited for almost a year to finalize the agreement, they would now have to wait for the incoming Bush administration to sign off on the deal. Shortly after George Bush was inaugurated, South Korean president Kim Dae Jung visited Washington. Phillip Yun details what unfolded next.
Phillip Yun Kim Dae-jung was anxious to go meet President George W. Bush because he wanted to make sure that the Perry process was still on track. He met with Colin Powell at the State Department. And Colin Powell basically said we're going to continue the Perry process. But something happened from when Kim Dae-jung met with Colin Powell to the next day. And the story is that Dick Cheney was not very pleased. And by the time Kim Dae-jung met with George Bush the next day, George Bush basically told Kim Dae-jung “uh-uh, we are not doing the Perry process. We are going a completely different route. We don't like the North Koreans. We don't trust the North Koreans. And that's the way it's going to be.”
Lisa Perry And with that one meeting, two years of multilateral negotiations unraveled.
William Perry It was, I think, a major, major lost opportunity. The Bush administration believed they were going to get a much better agreement.
Lisa Perry So what was the Bush plan to get a much better agreement? First, President Bush famously called North Korea part of an axis of evil. Soon after that, he abandoned the Agreed Framework and imposed harsh sanctions. The Bush team was determined to project “toughness.” Not only would they not talk with what they considered to be an illegitimate government, they made regime change their explicit policy. The Bush administration appeared to view the Clinton strategy of negotiations as appeasement. But as we heard, President Clinton was quite prepared to use military force if necessary. The difference was that Clinton leveraged that toughness into a deal. International security experts call this, “coercive diplomacy.” And while it was far from perfect, the deal they obtained prevented a potentially disastrous war and bought us time on the Korean nuclear clock.
At its heart, there is a deep question of political philosophy at stake here: when faced with a ruthless government that fundamentally goes against our values as a nation, are negotiations justifiable when it is necessary to achieve an important goal, or is regime change our only option? We saw the very same dynamic at play in the fierce resistance to the Iran Deal during the Obama years. My grandfather is sympathetic to the distaste that kept the Bush administration from engaging with the North Korean government. But in some ways, avoiding dealing with those countries you despise, is perhaps a national security version of political correctness. Maybe it’s better to recognize the reality on the ground, and work from there.
William Perry It's a terrible country to live in. It's a terrible regime. If we had a credible way of overthrowing the regime, I would certainly entertain that idea. I would love to see that regime overthrown. But we are not in a position to force that to happen. And we should not delude ourselves into thinking that we are.
Lisa Perry The aggressive posture of the Bush Administration reduced what limited communications we had established with North Korea. With no way to talk to one another, we had no way to truly understand their motives and capabilities. As a result, the rhetoric about the North Koreans as being illogical and insane only grew louder.
It is fair to say that the North Koreans themselves have contributed to this, with their infamous habit of making outrageous and florid threats — declaring they will exact a “thousand-fold revenge” if they are attacked, threatening “the US imperialists with greatest pain” they has ever suffered, and promising a “final ruining” of America. My grandfather himself has been a target of this unique North Korean bluster. During the first Korean crisis, the regime in Pyongyang dubbed him a “war maniac” and threatened to rain down a “sea of flames” on the United States. But while the threats are absurd, they distract us from the very serious and real issues that North Korea presents.
William Perry I might go so far to say, is that, the North Korean leadership is evil, but they're certainly not crazy, they're not irrational. They have a very clear objective and they have pursued it consistently and effectively. And their objective is to maintain the Kim Il Sung dynasty in power in North Korea at all costs. They’re dangerous in some sense, but they're not dangerous in the sense that they're going to conduct an unprovoked attack. They are not suicidal and they're not stupid.
Lisa Perry Behind the bluster, the North Koreans were steadily advancing their nuclear know-how. Then, in a surprising turn of events, North Korea decided to raise the veil on their program when they issued a remarkable invitation to Dr. Siegfried Hecker. Dr. Hecker is a nuclear physicist and Stanford professor; he was also the past director of the Los Alamos Nuclear Lab, the birthplace of the atomic bomb.
Siegfried Hecker In late 2003, I was still at Los Alamos and my Stanford colleague, Professor John Lewis called me, and said, Sig, I need you to go to North Korea with me. John was a political scientist. He said, I need a nuclear guy to come along. And I said, John, I don't want to go to North Korea. And John is a very persistent guy. And so lo and behold, I wound up going to North Korea in January of 2004.
Lisa Perry Dr. Hecker was apprehensive about visiting the Hermit Kingdom, but with such limited information on how close the nation was to getting the bomb, the U.S. was desperate for any insight it could get.
Siegfried Hecker I was quite concerned that they would sort of use my visit for propaganda purposes. And that's also why most of the U.S. government did not want me to go. However, there were a few courageous people in the government that said, look, why don't you go, we might learn something.
Lisa Perry To his surprise, this famously secretive nation was incredibly eager to share with him exactly what they had been doing.
Siegfried Hecker Quite frankly, the visit was mind boggling. Minister Kim Gay Guan told me at that time, we have you here to reduce the ambiguity's about our program. So they took me to the reactor and showed me it was operating. And I said, you know, what you showed me, was pretty good, pretty convincing, but you know, I didn't see any plutonium. The director of the facility who was showing us around said, well, Doctor Hecker, would you like to see our product? And I was a little startled, I said, you mean you mean the plutonium? And he said, well, yes.
Now we're sitting in a conference room. That's usually not the place you bring plutonium in, but I said, look, I've seen a lot of plutonium in my lifetime. So I said, sure. So lo and behold, director goes, goes out in the hallway, and he brings in a red metal box, opens it up, and there's some styrofoam in the two glass jars. And he said, this one over here on the left, it's our product, it's the plutonium.
I said, I'd like to hold the jar. Is that okay? And then he said, well, sure, Dr. Hecker, but you must wear gloves. And I said, well, that's good. So they gave me these Playtex kitchen gloves. I slipped them on, he gave me the jar. I held it and sure as can be, it was heavy and then it was slightly warm. Yes, I said, that was plutonium. If they can make that piece of plutonium, they can make the bomb.
Lisa Perry Sig Hecker’s visit radically changed how he perceived the nation of North Korea.
Siegfried Hecker This is one of the interesting things about North Korea. In spite of the fact that, you know, we in the United States say that this is the most secretive nation in the world, they have signaled us in so many ways as to what they're gonna do. They developed the program, they built the bomb, in what I call in plain sight.
Lisa Perry In October, 2006, North Korea reached an historic milestone, when they conducted their first successful nuclear detonation. This stunning development was followed quickly by tests of several long-range missiles. The Bush administration’s tough talk and sanctions had failed to stop North Korea from going nuclear.
Despite all their tough rhetoric, the U.S. actually had been reluctantly participating in something called the Six Party Talks, alongside South Korea, China, Russia and Japan. The shock of the Korean nuclear test forced the Bush administration to rethink their approach. Likewise, the North Koreans were now taking stock of their new status as a nuclear power. The result was that the Six Party Talks began to show some progress. Eventually, North Korea agreed to a deal whereby they would disable their reactors and give a complete inventory of their nuclear assets, in exchange for lifting of sanctions and supplies of food and fuel oil. Dr. Hecker was once again invited to North Korea, this time to witness the dismantling of their nuclear program.
Siegfried Hecker They had laid out a program with the U.S. government in terms of, you know, some dozen steps that they would take, and then they would take me to those places and actually show me what they had done.
Lisa Perry Once again the boom-bust cycle of crisis and resolution was swinging back towards optimism. That mood was epitomized in a rather extraordinary performance that occurred in February of 2008, when the New York Philharmonic played in the North Korean capital of Pyongyang. My grandfather was honored with an invitation to this unique event. At first he had declined, as he was unable to make the necessary air connections to arrive on time, but when the North Korean government offered to personally drive him across the DMZ to attend the event, he couldn’t refuse such an unusual offer.
William Perry And at the appointed time, I walked up to the DMZ line and there was a North Korean delegation waiting for me and inviting me across. So I walked across the line. I don't know how many times that's happened, but not very often, I'm sure. I must say I felt some sort of a sense of foreboding as I walked across that line. And they took me into the North Korean house on the other side of the DMZ. We got in there and North Korean general broke into a big grin at that point and said, would you like some ginseng? And I said, yes. And he said, I probably shouldn't offer you ginseng, because you are married. Well, the joke is that ginseng is supposed to be an aphrodisiac and he thought that was hilariously funny and he was laughing and chortling away. So we had the ginseng and then he had a car there that drove me from the DMZ to Pyongyang, which is about, I don't know, 60 or 70 miles.
This was in the middle of the winter. And so I said, how are we going to get through the snow to drive up to Pyongyang? And he said, well, we have our snow removal crews out. And we started driving and I immediately saw what the snow removal crews were. There were thousands, literally thousands of Korean citizens with brooms and shovels out on the road, clearing a one lane for us to drive up. We were the only car on the road
Lisa Perry This unprecedented concert would turn out to be one of the more moving performances my grandfather had witnessed in his lifetime.
William Perry After playing the North Korean national anthem, they played the Star Spangled Banner, and everybody in the audience stood up for the Star Spangled Banner, as well as the North Korean anthem. The concert ended with a playing of a hymn, I guess you'd call it. It's a Korean song, which is loved equally by North Koreans and South Koreans. It's a song about lovers who are separated and can't get back together again. So symbolic of the division between North and South Korea.
I was looking around the audience to my left and right. And, and I was sort of surrounded by senior North Korean officials, including many military officials, many of them in their uniform. and I'm seeing these North Korean generals with tears running down their eyes. It was a very moving moment in the audience. And as I said, many, many people, including these rugged, North Korean generals, were actually crying.
Lisa Perry Unfortunately, my grandfather was the only major US figure who accepted an invitation to this event, despite the fact that it clearly appeared to be an attempt to build goodwill between our nations.
William Perry I believe they were all hoping and believing this meant there was going to be an end of the hostility, it was symbolic of the end of the hostility between the U.S. and North Korea. That was really a highly emotional visit for me. I still get angry and frustrated that the administration didn't have the sense to try and make something out of it.
Lisa Perry The Bush team’s disinterest in this opportunity unfortunately mirrored their disinterest in working diplomatically with North Korea as a whole. Not long after the concert, the Six-Party deal fell through.
William Perry The outcome of their strategy was that then within a few years, North Korea ended up with a nuclear arsenal and that arsenal has only increased in size since then.
Lisa Perry So, what are we really looking at today with nuclear North Korea? By 2011, the 30-year-old Kim Jong Un had risen to power, and the brakes came off the North Korean nuclear program. They began to test even larger warheads and longer-range missiles and cut off all direct diplomatic interactions. This further decreased our ability to know what North Korea is doing. Since then, the U.S. has relied almost entirely on experts like Jeffrey Lewis, a scholar at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, uses indirect methods to infer the status of the North Korean nuclear program.
Jeffrey Lewis I think we have to be really honest that there's a lot we don't know about North Korea. We are able to look at the things that the North Koreans say publicly. In some cases, those were declarations that they gave to the International Atomic Energy Agency. In some cases, it's visits that they've arranged for foreign experts like Sig Hecker. And in other cases, it's propaganda they released But, that information is always fragmentary and it's very hard to interpret. So, what we have to do is we have to then try to add other sources of information, like satellite photographs, and also try to build computer models of facilities and missiles in order to assess their capabilities. So, you know, you can kind of pack all that together, and come up with what I think is a pretty good guess.
The range of estimates for North Korea's nuclear arsenal typically run between about 20 and 60 nuclear warheads, including thermonuclear weapons that are small enough to be put on missiles, which can reach everywhere from South Korea and Japan all the way to the United States.
Lisa Perry Whether we officially recognize them or not, North Korea is now a nuclear power. Philip Yun points out that this fact completely changes the landscape of how we must deal with North Korea compared to their efforts twenty years ago.
Phillip Yun We've got to realize that in 2000 North Korea did not have a nuclear device. You know, I for one, and I think Bill Perry and others will say that North Korean’s willingness to give those up were genuine because in effect they did not know when they were going to be able to get a nuclear device. It becomes more difficult when you actually have something. It's gonna be very hard for you to give them up
Lisa Perry Since North Korea developed nuclear capabilities, progress on this issue has turned into a stalemate. The Obama administration did little to move the needle — they adopted a policy termed “strategic patience,” characterized by a steady increase in sanctions, coupled with a refusal to engage in diplomatic relations as long as the country continued to harbor nuclear weapons. At the time, many believed that it was possible that the government might fail under the new leadership of the young Kim Jong-Un, and hoped that a quiet “wait and see” approach might pay off. But as we have witnessed before, betting on the North Korean regime to simply collapse is not a winning strategy.
With the election of Donald Trump, the era of “strategic patience” was most certainly over. From the Clinton era of coercive diplomacy, to the Bush era of sanctions and tough talk, President Trump has seemingly taken both approaches in his dealings with the North Koreans, with questionable success. He kicked off his presidency with bombastic words rivalling North Korean threats.
President Trump: North Korea best not make any more threats to the United States. They will be met with Fire and Fury the likes that the world has never seen.
Lisa Perry A flurry of high profile diplomatic summits between President Trump and the young Kim Jong-Un followed, resulting in showy claims of love and friendship between our two nations.
President Trump: I was really being and so was he, and we would go back and forth, and then we fell in love. OK? No, really. He wrote me beautiful letters. And they’re great letters. We fell in love.
Lisa Perry Yet, despite the dramatic performances on both sides, almost nothing of substance has changed. We are no closer to any real agreement with North Korea on their program, or to a de-nuclearized Korean peninsula. The past decade has demonstrated that we must approach this problem realistically, and strategically. We cannot just threaten, and we cannot just talk. We must have a plan.
So where do we go from here in our dealings with North Korea, now that they’ve achieved their nuclear goals?
Jeffrey Lewis So what I think North Korea is willing to trade are a series of steps that wouldn't really lead to disarmament per se, but would help take the nuclear issue out of the equation. So for example, we've already seen that North Korea has been willing to refrain from testing nuclear weapons and to refrain from testing ICBMs that can hit the United States. And that's not nothing, right? Those are constraints that, they don't lead us to disarmament, but they also prevent the situation from getting worse by removing a major source of tension and the possibility of a situation that escalates.
What they're more interested in is, call it the Israel model. Maybe they don't disarm, but they also stopped brandishing the weapons. They don't test them anymore. I think we have to be pragmatic about the way we go about that. I am prepared to live with a reduced North Korean nuclear posture in exchange for progress on all the other things in the relationship that make them want to have nuclear weapons in the first place. And so, I think if we can get that piece right, then I think over the really long term, then we really can make progress on these issues. But like with most things in life, you have to be patient
Siegfried Hecker Look, engage him and realize it's going to take like 10 years, you know, to develop the sort of trust and relationship where they might feel comfortable that they're not going to be attacked. it's like when you're in a hole, stop digging.
Lisa Perry And, despite all the mystery surrounding the Hermit Kingdom, in fact we do know what they want. At the top of the list is security: maintaining the Kim dynasty in power. But they also strongly desire an end to their 75 years of isolation, and the beginning of normal political and economic relations with South Korea and with the West. Jeffrey Lewis and my grandfather outline what that might look like.
Jeffrey Lewis I think what the North Koreans want is a better relationship with the United States and South Korea, one in which there are no military exercises. Uh, there are no sanctions, uh, and where there is a fair amount of development assistance.
William Perry In the long term, if we're going to have peace on the Korean Peninsula, it has to be attended by normalization of relations. I don't believe there's any indication though that the American government understands the importance of that component in the negotiations.
Lisa Perry Twenty years ago, we were inches away from an agreement that would have put a lid on North Korea’s nuclear program. And all it would have cost us is a formal peace treaty and an embassy in Pyongyang. But that future disappeared in an instant when the Bush administration walked away from that deal, refusing to be seen as compromising with an enemy nation. Today, North Korea now possesses dozens of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles.
The truth is that there is no way of knowing whether this agreement would have prevented North Korea from going nuclear eventually. But it is difficult to look back at that deal, and wonder what might have been, as Phillip Yun reflects.
Phillip Yun What we stopped in 1994, the North Koreans continued in the latter part of 2000. And that's the tragedy of it all because we never really found out whether the North Koreans were willing to give these things are up. We never gave them the opportunity and we never gave ourselves the opportunity to find out.
Lisa Perry It is easy to despair that our best chance to stop the North Korean nuclear program was missed. But the Trump-Kim summits were a big surprise and remind us that sometimes good results can come from unexpected places. As Phillip Yun points out, we cannot know what is behind the next door, if we do not even open it.
Phillip Yun If someone tells me right now, does North Korea really want to give up these nuclear weapons, my opinion is definitely not in the short term, maybe medium to longer term, but I don't know, no one really knows. And anyone who says they know really doesn't. And what I say to those people who say “oh, Kim Jong Un doesn't really want to do this, blah blah blah, I'm going to say, well, have you met him? Have you been to North Korea? Have you met a North Korean? What we have, though, is an opportunity to find out for the first time in almost 20 years. We have the opportunity to talk directly to the only person who really matters in North Korea, to find out what his intentions are. And that's Kim Jong-Un.
Lisa Perry The future of North Korea is unwritten. But if we ever hope to make progress on what has been an intractable issue for decades, we must go back to the basics: acceptance, understanding and communication.
First, we must accept North Korea as it is, not as we wish it to be. North Korea has nuclear weapons, and we must now deal with them accordingly. We don't demand complete denuclearization of China or Russia, two countries that pose much graver threats, so why do we think North Korea would agree to such a deal? We must start by finding ways to lower the mutual threat of a nuclear war. Because even if we can’t negotiate away North Korea’s nukes, that doesn’t mean we can’t work together to mitigate the danger of these terrible weapons.
Second, we must understand North Korean priorities. Often, North Korea’s intentions, like a bad Korean soap opera, have been lost in translation. The North Korean regime developed nuclear weapons because they believed that arsenal would secure the survival of their dynasty. We may dislike or disagree with their logic, but we must understand their reasoning if we hope to convince them of an alternative.
Finally, we must continue to communicate with North Korea, no matter how much we disagree with their actions as a nation. We cannot ever hope to achieve a deal if we’re not even talking to one another. It will take a great deal of time and determination to reach any agreement, but the one thing we can both agree on, is the desire for a safer Korean peninsula. And that is not crazy at all.
That’s our show! To learn more about the North Korean situation, check out our website at www.atthebrink.org. There you can find a link to Jeffrey Lewis’s speculative novel about how the North Korean situation could go disastrously wrong, called “The 2020 Commission Report on the North Korean Attacks on the United States.” You can also view unique photos from across the DMZ. Want to chat with us about the show? We’d love to hear your thoughts! You can tweet to our show account @atthebrinkpod, or Lisaatthebrink (that’s me), or SecDef19 (yes, my grandfather does use twitter!).
At the Brink is made possible by the generous support of the Carnegie Corporation and the Nuclear Threat Initiative. These organizations work tirelessly to combat the global threat of nuclear weapons.
This podcast is a creation of the William J. Perry Project. This episode was produced by Jeff Large and Maggie Fischer from Come Alive Creative, and Ryan Hobler is our composer and audio engineer.
Thank you to our listeners — you're helping us to try and save the world one podcast at a time. I'm Lisa Perry. Thanks for listening
Dr. Siegfried Hecker
Former director, Los Alamos Laboratories; senior fellow emeritus at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies at Stanford University; author, Doomed to Cooperate: How American and Russian Scientists Joined Forces to Avert Some of the Greatest Post-Cold War Nuclear Dangers
Dr. Jeffrey Lewis @ArmsControlWonk
Adjunct Professor, James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey; director, CNS East Asia Nonproliferation Program; creator, Arms Control Wonk podcast
Bill Perry @SecDef19
19th U.S. Secretary of Defense; co-author, THE BUTTON: The New Nuclear Arms Race and Presidential Power from Truman to Trump
Former Senior Advisor to the Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs; former COO of Ploughshares Fund; President and CEO of the World Affairs Council of Northern California
- Read A Comprehensive History of North Korea’s Nuclear Program, by Siegfried S. Hecker, Robert L. Carlin, and Elliot A. Serbin.
- Read The 2020 Commission Report on the North Korean Nuclear Attacks Against the United States: A Speculative Novel, by Dr. Jeffrey Lewis.
- Visit The Stimson Center’s website 38 North for informed analysis of events in and around North Korea.
- Read more about the first North Korean nuclear crisis and the Agreed Framework in Going Critical: The First North Korean Nuclear Crisis by Daniel B. Poneman and Robert L. Galluci.