March 8, 2018
I was very encouraged to hear that a summit meeting is being planned for May to deal with the dangerous North Korea nuclear program. This is a major improvement over diplomacy that consisted of shouting insults at each other.
But there are two key questions about this meeting:
First: what will we talk about? That is, what does the U.S. expect to get, and what is the U.S. willing to give?
Second: what will we and North Korea be doing while we are talking? Are the U.S. and its allies going to sustain the pressure presently on North Korea? And will North Korea continue the development and testing of missiles and nuclear weapons?
Statements from the administration suggest that the U.S. goal is for North Korea to dismantle its nuclear arsenal and become a non-nuclear power. There is every reason to doubt that North Korea would be willing to go that far; but even if they are, there remains a fundamental question: How could we possibly verify such an agreement?
We don’t know how many nuclear weapons they have operational or under construction; we don’t know where all their nuclear facilities are; and we have never implemented a treaty that counts warheads, simply because it is so difficult to verify (and so easy to cheat on). Our nuclear treaties with the Soviet Union and Russia counted missiles, not warheads (the number of operational warheads was assumed based on the number of operational missiles counted). We still do not know how many total nuclear warheads the Russian have, in the field, in their labs, and in their storage facilities, and our estimates may be off by thousands. So it is a fundamental error to think that we could reliably verify a treaty by which North Korea agreed to dismantle all of their nuclear weapons.
We could verify an agreement that banned testing of nuclear weapons and long-range missiles, and such an agreement would be very much in our interest. It would be equally in our interest to have an agreement stopping the proliferation of North Korean nuclear components and technology, although such an agreement would be much harder to verify than a test agreement.
There is good reason to talk, but only if we are talking about something that is worth doing and that could be reasonably verified - otherwise we are setting ourselves up for a major diplomatic failure.
Finally, to hedge against such failure, it would be wise to have a prior agreement that limited objectionable actions such as like nuclear tests while we are talking, as North Korea has suggested that it would. (Before Clinton agreed to begin the diplomatic talks that led to the Agreed Framework, he required North Korea to stop all processing at their nuclear facility at Yongbyon.)
I highly favor talks, but such talks must be based on realistic expectations of what can be negotiated and what can be verified. As I have written before: “We must deal with North Korea as it is; not as we would wish it to be.” That remains true.
William J. Perry
19th U.S. Secretary of Defense