Today's date:
Fall 2003


North Korean Nukes Are Now an Imminent Threat

William Perry was US 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 NPQ editor Nathan Gardels on July 25. Excerpts follow.

Stanford -- Alarmingly, the North Koreans announced in mid-July they were 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 US, but that it might well sell weapons to be used against the US.

The last time around, when I was defense secretary under Clinton, 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 them.

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 urgent thing now is that the US 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 US 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.

MILITARY STRIKE? | A year ago, 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 US 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 US is the dominant military power in the world. We have substantial leverage, and we ought to be using it.

INTERDICTION? | 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.

A JAPANESE MISSILE SHIELD | I recommended to the Japanese some years ago, when I was defense secretary, that they participate with the US 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.