By Oh Young-jin
Living in constant fear of invasion by the North after the Korean War ended in a truce in 1953, South Koreans ironically appear doubtful whether there will be a second conflict on the peninsula.
It is a coping system of sorts without which many of them could have gone mad, considering the crazy quilt of micro-attacks, some of them fatal, Pyongyang has inflicted on the South through its three generations of despots — the latest being the 33-year-old dictator Kim Jong-un, who doesn’t pale in ruthlessness compared to his father and grandfather.
Will Kim’s rule be business as usual with some minor conflicts that, as before, prevent steam from building to the point of explosion or a full-fledged war?
If any ordinary person with the label of expert cries war, they would likely be dismissed as another Cassandra or wolf-crying shepherd. But what if William Perry sounded the alarm?
That could be a different matter.
As U.S. President Bill Clinton’s defense secretary he had considered bombing the North’s nuclear facilities in the 1990s and then developed the Perry Process, a tit-for-tat manual for disarming the North.
Perry now talks about the possibility of war, a nuclear war on the Korean Peninsula, but thankfully he qualifies it, meaning there is a way of avoiding it.
“In the U.S., there is a new inexperienced government and in Korea there is no government,” Perry said over the telephone from his office at Stanford University in California, Saturday. “They could blunder into war, not a deliberate war.”
That war could turn into a nuclear slugfest between David (North Korea) and Goliath (U.S.) considering their respective nuclear stockpiles. But predicting the outcome would be irrelevant because the real losers have already been determined: people living on the Korean Peninsula.
“The outcome would be catastrophic, much more than the first war,” he said.
He said the U.S. would translate its assurances of extended deterrence or its nuclear umbrella into action, if the North used nuclear devices, dismissing counterclaims that have led to calls for an independent nuclear arsenal.
Here are Perry’s qualifiers to stop this doomsday scenario.
“Kim Jong-un is ruthless, not crazy, and has proved an effective ruler,” is how Perry assessed the North Korean leader.
He feels that Kim’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and missiles to deliver them to the U.S. is more aimed at lifting the North out of pariah status, and he has little real intention of using them.
“They won’t use them first because it means they will be annihilated,” he said, meaning that with the North the nuclear devices are like they are with any other nuclear power in that they are bound to be the weapons of last resort.
Then how would we solve this North Korean riddle? Perry sounded like a doctor who advises a patient with diabetes: acknowledge the illness but treat it like a friend (of course, not literally I assumed).
“North Korea is a nuclear weapons state,” he said. South Korea, the U.S. and Japan and other countries have refused to acknowledge the North as such. Pyongyang has tested nuclear devices many times with signs such as tremors qualifying them to be workable devices.
“That leaves diplomacy as the only option,” he said.
However, he assured that his diplomacy option is not the spineless, bending-backward approach to accommodate whatever Pyongyang wants but rather the “coercive” type.
“South Korea, the United States and Japan have diplomatic sticks, China has economic sticks that can hurt the North,” he said, observing that the combination of these sticks can lead to a solution.
“The principles of the Perry Process are still viable,” he said. Perry authored it in 1999 as the key U.S. North Korea policy, pushing for a program that also offers “carrots” as well steering the North from its dabbling in nuclear weapons.
One question that remained unasked in the interview is whether he has regrets now with the benefit of hindsight about pressing ahead with the plan to take out the North’s incipient nuclear program in a surgical strike. Then, the plan was ditched after protests from the Korean government ostensibly; but perhaps equally responsible was human nature in not putting many fellow humans in danger. Perry obviously refused to make a wager on their lives.
Regarding the controversy triggered by China’s opposition to the deployment of a U.S. missile interceptor in South Korea, he said it doesn’t make sense.
“THAAD doesn’t target missiles coming from China,” he said. “It is a limited deployment against the North’s threat and THAAD is a terminal-stage interceptor.” THAAD stands for Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense system.
He said that if it targets Chinese missiles, different types of missiles such as interceptors against missiles on mid-course are used. “I will tell the Chinese about it during my visit there next (this) week.”
He implied that Chinese opposition based on their claim the THAAD radar was spying on their interior was also untenable. The logic appears the same as that behind China’s muteness on American satellites moving in space high above its territory.
Rather, Perry worries that the one battery is not enough to cover the South from an attack by the North, especially as it could fire missiles by the hundreds.
He said it would be a mistake for the South to reverse its deployment decision.
“North Korea threatens you. You have to protect yourselves,” he said.
Perry, originally a mathematician, has been involved in highly classified U.S. government projects since the 1950s, and now works as director of the Preventive Defense Project at Stanford.