WASHINGTON — The United States should consider a range of coercive measures against North Korea, including possible military action, for diplomacy to have a chance of success, former Defense Secretary William Perry said Thursday.
Perry emphasized that he was not recommending military action against North Korea now but said the United States should at least consider escalating to military action if other lesser coercive measures prove ineffective.
"We could have stopped this last nuclear test if we had chosen to do so. We could have stopped the first one had we chosen to do so," he told an audience at the Council on Foreign Relations.
"That requires a military action, and I'm not recommending military action. But somewhere along in this series of coercive actions, one can imagine an escalation, and if the ones that are less do not succeed, we have to be willing to consider the other ones."
He noted that North Korea has not tested a missile with a nuclear weapon, a difficult technical achievement, and said pre-emptive strikes to stop such tests is another option that could be considered.
Perry was defense secretary from 1994-96 during a similar confrontation with North Korea that ended in the first nuclear disarmament accord with North Korea in 1994, only narrowly avoiding U.S. military action.
Brent Scowcroft, a former national security adviser and Perry's co-chair in a study on U.S. nuclear policy, said he agreed with Perry, but cautioned that the use of force is fraught with the risk of unintended consequences.
"When you get in trouble force looks like a clean way to cut through all the fog and resolve the problem," he said. "But the use of force creates a new environment, and the problem is nothing is the same at the end as it was in the beginning."
In a question-and-answer session, Perry said the U.S. approach toward North Korea in the six-party talks had failed, and there could be no return to business as usual.
"Having said that, I do believe that diplomacy still has a chance of success, but only if it is robust and only if its robustness includes some meaningful coercion on opponents," he said.
"I recognize that diplomacy has a much steeper hill to climb now than it did in 2003 because they now have a bomb," he said, referring to the last crisis with North Korea.
"Then we had the option of stopping the production of plutonium. Now the plutonium has been produced and it is located somewhere we know not where. So that option has now disappeared," he said.
But the United States should not accept a nuclear armed North Korea, he said.
The United States needs to hear an "an unambiguous and clear condemnation" of North Korea by the UN Security Council, and that any rebuke had to be more than "an exercise in words," he said.
"What are the coercive elements we need to consider? It seems to me the one that is the most immediate, and with real bite to it is stopping the money transactions of the North Korean leadership," he said.
"But when I say 'we' I don't mean the U.S. alone. This has to be an international effort," he said.
"If that is not sufficient, and it probably will not be, then we need to consider some stronger measures," he said. "We're discussing already stopping the transfer of nuclear related material and equipment from North Korea."
He acknowledged that such a move would be dangerous but said the risks had to be balanced against those associated with allowing North Korea to proceed with its nuclear program.
North Korea has said it would respond to any attempt to board its ships with military strikes on South Korea.
Both Perry and Scrowcroft said China's support would be key if sanctions against North Korea were to be effective.
Scowcroft said the latest nuclear test appears to have settled a debate as to whether North Korea's goal was to become a nuclear state, or trade its nuclear program for economic benefits and security guarantees.
"Now it looks like that is becoming clearer, and their goal is to become a nuclear weapons state. I think that makes a big difference in the Chinese attitude, for example," he said.
"I think there is the possibility now with some skillful diplomacy to exercise one or more, several of the options that Bill Perry has recommended," he said.
"We now have a new situation that has not appeared before, and it seems clear to me that we now have additional leverage and reason to expect from our friends in the five-, or six-party talks," he said.
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