This article is part of a series from the November 2017 Harvard University conference entitled “Presidential First Use: Is it legal? Is it constitutional? Is it just?” To access all of the transcripts from this conference, click here.

William Perry

Former U.S. Secretary of Defense, William Perry.

In 1998, North Korea launched a long-range missile. The test happened to be unsuccessful, but the fact that they were testing caused great concern that they were cheating on the 1994 Agreed Framework, by which they agreed to shut down their nuclear program at Yongbyon. We believed that they must still have some nuclear developments underway, because an ICBM doesn’t make much sense unless it’s carrying a nuclear weapon. The test led people in Congress to believe that we had to pull out of the Agreed Framework. In that turmoil, President Clinton asked me if I would temporarily come back into government and serve as his special representative on dealing with North Korea.

I foolishly accepted the assignment. The first thing I did was brief Congress about my new assignment and my goal to stop any nuclear developments that might be still underway in North Korea, as well as their development of long-range missiles. Not all the members were thrilled, but they seemed to accept it. I then asked the Japanese prime minister and the South Korean president to appoint an equivalent person to work with me so that this would be a tripartite process rather than an American process. The three of us spent the next several months working and then released a report that laid out a diplomatic path for approaching North Korea.

The single most important statement in that report was that we must “deal with North Korea as it is, not as we might wish it to be.” I believe that statement is as true today as it was when the report came out, in 1999. I then requested a meeting with the North Korean leaders and they granted it. They allowed me to fly an Air Force plane directly into Pyongyang, which is so unusual that, as we flew into North Korea, I was looking down wondering whether the air defense people on the ground had gotten the word that it was all right for this US Air Force plane to fly in there. After a very interesting four days in Pyongyang, we ended with a comprehensive verbal agreement about what North Koreans would not do; what the US would do to provide additional security assurances to North Korea; and what Japan and South Korea would offer in the way of economic incentives.

This was followed by a series of actions in North Korea, some of which were quite encouraging, including allowing North Korean athletes to march with South Korean athletes in the Olympics—a symbolic gesture, but a very nice one. Kim Jong-il sent his top military aide, vice marshal Jo Myong-rok, back to the United States to see if we could come to a formal agreement. He asked me if he could stop at Stanford on the way so that I could show him around Silicon Valley, which I did. I arranged to take him to companies where the CEOs happened to be Korean Americans so that they could speak to him in his own language.

Jo’s meeting in Washington was successful. He met with both the secretary of state and the president and we reached a final agreement. The signing was nominally set for a month or two in the future, whenever Clinton and Kim Jong-il could get their schedules worked out. The meeting happened in October of 2000. The next month, a new US administration was elected. Initially, the Bush administration said they would continue the effort, but in fact two months later President Bush cut off all discussions with North Korea. For two years there were no discussions at all, and the whole process collapsed.

The Bush Administration believed that they could get a better agreement. By 2017 that had resulted in North Korea having 20 to 30 nuclear weapons, a few of them thermonuclear, and a couple of hundred ballistic missiles, most of them capable of reaching South Korea and some of them capable of reaching Japan. And North Korea was developing missiles capable of reaching the United States.

The purpose of these nuclear weapons in my considered judgment is to deter the United States from making a military attack on North Korea. They want to sustain their regime and, more broadly, the Kim dynasty. Each of the three leaders of North Korea has essentially been an emperor with absolute power, including the power to summarily execute someone if they decide to do so. North Korean leaders have absolute power over international decisions.

The current North Korean regime in my judgment is ruthless, including to their own people, and reckless. But I do not believe they are suicidal. I do not believe they are crazy. They’re seeking to stay in power, and therefore, in my judgment, they will use the nuclear weapons only in response to an attack. Nuclear weapons are useful to them, but only if they do not use them. Once they use them, the leaders understand that they will die and their country will be devastated.

I therefore think that the US fear of an unprovoked attack by North Korea is groundless. But still, it’s a very dangerous situation. North Korea will use nuclear weapons if attacked, and there certainly has been ample talk in the United States of making a preemptive attack on them. North Korea may even use nuclear weapons if they believe they’re about to be attacked.

Consider the consequences. North Korea has Seoul and Tokyo and other cities within range of their nuclear weapons. If they attack those cities, they will destroy them. Millions of people will die. This is not hyperbole. Putting on my technical hat as former secretary of defense and former under secretary of defense for research and engineering, I can confidently say that we could avenge such an action, but we cannot defend against it. We do not have a defense capable of protecting against a missile attack on Tokyo and Seoul.

Our policy should be to ensure that this does not happen. How do we do that? We have to get serious about diplomacy. I’m convinced that there is a diplomatic path available to us. The path to Pyongyang is through Beijing. We should start our diplomacy with China so that the US and China can agree on the dangers and how to deal with them. We also need to address China’s concern about having American troops along the Yellow River, which is one of the big factors holding them back from taking meaningful action.