The North Korean Policy Review: What Happened in 1999

The following is an excerpt from William Perry's memoir, "My Journey at the Nuclear Brink," on his diplomatic mission to Pyongyang to prevent North Korea from obtaining nuclear weapons and how the agreement eventually fell apart, creating the hostile negotiating atmosphere the U.S. faces today.

(Cover Photo: William Perry is escorted across the DMZ by North Korean soldiers to attend historic concert in Pyongyang by New York Philharmonic in 2008)

Chapter 22.
The North Korean Policy Review:
Triumph and Tragedy

United States policy must, therefore, deal with the North Korean government as it is, not as we might wish it to be.
— North Korean Policy Review to President Clinton, President Kim Dae Jung, and Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi, 1999

The last crisis with North Korea, which occurred in 1994 just after I became the Secretary of Defense, had been resolved by the Agreed Framework, a bilateral agreement between the United States and North Korea. Under that framework, North Korea agreed to shut down their nuclear facilities at Yongbyon, which were posed to make plutonium from the graphite-moderated reactor there; the Japanese and South Koreans agreed to build two light water nuclear reactors (LWRs) in North Korea that would provide a total generating capacity of 1,000 MW(e), and the United States agreed to furnish fuel oil until the LWRs could provide electricity. Other countries joined as well to support the effort, all of which was under the leadership first of Ambassador Steve Bosworth and then of Bob Gallucci. Everything seemed to be going well: Yongbyon remained shut down (it could have provided enough plutonium for many dozens of bombs during that period); the LWR was under construction (although behind schedule); and the US was supplying fuel oil annually.

In North Korea, however, things never go well for long. A new crisis arose in 1998. North Korea was producing, testing, and deploying the NoDong, a medium-range ballistic missile able to reach South Korea and parts of Japan. Further, North Korea was developing the Taepo Dong 1 and Taepo Dong 2 long-range missiles, both using a modification of the NoDong as their first stage. The Taepo Dong missiles, when their development was completed, would be able to reach targets in parts of the United States, as well as South Korea and all of Japan. As a result, these missiles raised concerns in both countries, particularly since intercontinental missiles make no military sense unless they carry nuclear warheads. This concern reached a crisis stage on 31 August 1998, when North Korea flew a Taepo Dong 1 over Japan in a failed attempt to launch a satellite. (The first successful Russian and American satellites had been put into orbit by military rockets.) Provoking both US and Japanese outrage, this test flight brought calls in the US Congress and the Japanese Diet to end the funding for the Agreed Framework. Yet were the Agreed Framework to have been terminated, North Korea would doubtless have reopened its nuclear facility at Yongbyon, allowing the North to produce the plutonium needed to install nuclear warheads on those missiles.

During this dangerous period, the US Congress called for, and President Clinton agreed to establish, an outside North Korean Policy Review. President Clinton asked me to lead this review, and I felt obliged to accept. I believed that the review was called for by the new risks that had arisen in the four years since we had resolved the last crisis with the Agreed Framework—new risks in which the stakes had become even higher. I scaled down to half time at Stanford so that I could spend the other half of my time on the policy review.

I would need a strong team, and I immediately asked my long-time colleague, Ash Carter, to be the deputy director of the review. He agreed and similarly scaled down his work at Harvard. I also needed strong State Department support, potentially problematic because State traditionally resented presidential appointees intruding into its business. But as secretary of defense, I had worked closely with Madeleine Albright, then our UN ambassador and now the Secretary of State. I told her that with a first-class State team I had a good chance to succeed, and I pledged to work closely with her. She asked Wendy Sherman, one of her strongest deputies, to serve as co-deputy with Ash; and she assigned Evans Revere, the department’s foremost expert on Korea, and Philip Yun, a young Korean-American who was a rising star at State. We were also fortunate that the White House loaned us Ken Lieberthal, an expert on Asian policy with whom I had worked before.

My next challenge was Congress. I set up briefings for the relevant committees, which went well, and I met one-on-one with key members. These meetings also went well save for my meeting with Senator John McCain, an opponent of the Agreed Framework, who was opposed to further dialogue with the North Koreans. It helped some that I had gotten along well with Senator McCain in my days as Secretary of Defense, but it was clear that he would not be supportive of this project.

Finally, I believed that it was vitally important to bring the Japanese and South Korean governments on board, each a problem and differently so. Kim Dae Jung, the South Korean president, feared that my North Korea review would upset his ongoing “sunshine policy” with North Korea, while Keizo Obuchi, the Japanese prime minister, feared that I would ignore what he saw as Japan’s main issue with North Korea—securing the release of Japanese citizens who had been abducted by North Korea several decades ago and were still held in that country. I traveled to Asia, met with Prime Minister Obuchi and President Kim Dae Jung, promising each that I would take seriously their respective guidance and represent their full interests. I asked each to help me keep my promise by appointing to the review a senior representative of his government, with the three of us acting as co-directors of a “tripartite” project. This request surprised and disarmed both, and they made superb appointments to our review team. From this point forward I made no decision without the support of ambassadors Ryozo Kato and Lim Dong-Won. This approach slowed our start more than I would have liked, but in the end it paid a large dividend when we needed approval of our final report. This collaborative process (dubbed the “Perry Process” in Japan and South Korea) was widely popular in those countries, and remains so even to this day.

I believe that this collaborative approach is a model of how governments should work together on many important issues in our increasingly global times with their worldwide security concerns, especially regarding the perilous nuclear question. I believe in the collaborative process because my experience has shown me that individuals and nations, even those with a history of conflict and competition, can cooperate to important ends under a policy of mutual trust and respect. Undeniably, the North Korean crisis was an ominous portent. The nuclear weapons crisis, historically and by nature, must inevitably be a global crisis. It is in the urgent common interests of individual nations to collaborate in the diplomacy of creating international programs and processes to mitigate the threat.

In that spirit, and along with South Korea and Japan, I also held information meetings with Chinese and Russian government officials to get their advice and to keep them informed of our progress, even though they were not part of the formal approval process for the review.

With this collaborative foundation in place I started the review. During the next five months our tripartite group met six times: once in Washington, once in Tokyo, two times in Honolulu, and two times in Seoul. The meetings got off to a slow start because of the traditional suspicion between Japan and Korea, but as I had anticipated, our Japanese and Korean co-directors soon rose above that; thereafter the meetings went smoothly, and we quickly arrived at a consensus.

Our tripartite project team recognized that the strength of our coalition military forces was solidly in our favor in the power balance, a fact understood as well by the North. Our deterrence was not only strong, we concluded, but would remain so barring the North’s introduction of nuclear weapons, which could occur if North Korea restarted Yongbyon and began producing plutonium. We were keenly aware that North Korea could restart operations at Yongbyon in just a few months.

We noted that our governments were balancing two fundamentally different strategies, one new and one traditional. The new and preferred strategy was to make step-by-step progress to comprehensive normalization and a peace treaty (technically we still remained in a state of war, since the Korean War had ended in a truce), while the North Koreans dismantled their facilities capable of making nuclear weapons.

The more traditional alternative was a coercive strategy, applying successively stronger sanctions against North Korea, attempting to coerce them into giving up their nuclear facilities. For the coercive approach, we recommended first strengthening our deterrence forces, including adding key units to our Seventh Fleet, deploying additional troops to South Korea, and accelerating the deployment of ballistic missile defense (BMD) systems there.

Since the second strategy would be expensive, dangerous, and could all too easily slide into war, we put our focus on achieving the first. But we emphasized that none of our individual governments could unilaterally implement that strategy, for it would need the support of each of our legislative bodies and the full cooperation of the three allies (for which the tripartite meetings cleared a path). Most important, North Korea would have to agree to cooperate with our preferred strategy and the conditions it imposed on them. If it did not, we would have to fall back to the coercive strategy. All three leaders of our governments approved our recommendation and authorized me to visit Pyongyang to see if the leaders of the North would accept our preferred strategy. President Kim and Prime Minister Obuchi gave me letters authorizing me to speak for their countries, as well as for the United States. There was essentially full (even enthusiastic) agreement on our plan of action, a testimony to the tripartite process by which it was drawn up. We did not at this stage seek approval from our legislative bodies, although we knew that such approval would be necessary if I were able to get an agreement with North Korea.

The North Korean government permitted my team to fly into Pyongyang on a US military aircraft, a good sign that they took our mission seriously (as well as a great convenience over the alternative of flying to Beijing to wait for one of the infrequent flights to Pyongyang). I have to confess that I was somewhat nervous when our military aircraft crossed into North Korean airspace—had the ground-based air defense battery received word of our permission to fly in? Evidently so. We were met at the airport by a North Korean delegation that escorted us to our guest houses for a rest, after which we met that evening with the president of the Supreme People’s Assembly, a cordial but largely ceremonial affair, since Kim Jong Il, in fact, held the real power in North Korea. I looked over the schedule he gave me and pointed out that it showed no meetings with military leaders. Reminding my host that I had been the US Secretary of Defense, I asked to meet with a military leader. I also told him that we had brought medical supplies and would like to deliver them to the Children’s Hospital in Pyongyang. He agreed to both requests.

The next morning we were escorted to a conference room and, as we assembled, a North Korean general entered leading a delegation. The conversation went something like this:

“This meeting was not my idea,” he said at once. “I was directed to meet with you. I don’t think we should even be talking about giving up nuclear weapons.”

I replied, “Why do you think you need nuclear weapons?”

“To defend ourselves from aggression!”

“Aggression from whom?”

“From you [pointing at me]! We will develop nuclear weapons. Then, if you attack us, we will use our nuclear weapons to destroy your cities—not excluding Palo Alto!”

I appreciate candor in diplomacy, but this was, perhaps, overdoing it! In any event, I knew exactly where we stood with the general. In spite of the rocky beginning, the ensuing discussion proved to be interesting and useful. One indicative side note about North Korean intergovernmental relations came when the representative of the North Korean foreign minister made a point and the general interrupted to tell us, “You don’t have to pay any attention to these ‘neckties.’ They don’t know anything about military matters!”

Our experience the following day was much different. We visited the Pyongyang Children’s Hospital, where the chief physician at the hospital received us graciously. When we presented her with the medical supplies, including a large supply of antibiotics, she was almost in tears. She told us that children died needlessly there every day because there were no antibiotics. She invited me to visit with some of the children, and then paused, saying apologetically, “I have to warn you. This morning I told them that you were coming, and they asked me if you were here to kill them.” Could there be a sadder commentary on the warping of minds caused by hateful propaganda? North Koreans have no access to news except via government radio and television, which bombards them 24–7 with warnings about American “fascist warmongers.” (During the 1994 crisis, for example, the North Korea media called me a “war maniac.”) Nevertheless, the visit went without incident, and the children were delightful.

We spent most of three days negotiating with Kang Sok Ju, the senior North Korea diplomat, and the discussions were entirely without bluster. The North Koreans obviously valued their missiles, and saw them as providing deterrence, prestige, and cash from foreign sales. But they understood that giving up long-range missiles as well as nuclear weapons was the path to normalization of relations. Most important, they obviously wanted normalization, which, after decades of insecurity, could finally lead to a secure, stable, and prosperous Korean Peninsula.

Before we left Pyongyang we toured the city, including the famed Juche Tower. While there, a bus stopped below and its passengers disembarked, joined hands, and began dancing in a desultory manner. All the surrounding streets were otherwise empty, prompting us to ask about the dancers. Our guide said that these were “spontaneous, popular masses.”

On our return flight home, the consensus of our team was that North Korea was ready to accept the cooperative strategy we had presented.

The “sunshine policy” continued forward. In October 2000, Kim Jong Il indicated his support for our proposal by dispatching his senior military official, Vice-Marshal Jo Myong-Rok, to Washington. On his way, he stopped off at Stanford to visit me. Kim Jong Il had told him to ask me to take him to some Silicon Valley companies, so I organized a motor trip around the San Francisco Bay Area during which we visited three high-tech companies. Marshal Jo’s visit coincided with Fleet Week in San Francisco, an annual celebration of naval tradition in the Bay Area, and we were entertained on our drive across the Bay Bridge by the Navy’s Blue Angels flying overhead in tight formation, while a parade of ships down in the bay featured cruisers, destroyers, and aircraft carriers. The marshal probably thought the show of military might had been organized for his benefit!

That evening I hosted Marshal Jo for dinner at Stanford’s Encina Hall and invited three Korean-American businessmen to join us, including my friend Jeong Kim, a senior technology officer for Lucent who later became the president of Bell Labs. Earlier in the day, Jeong had given Marshal Jo a tour of Lucent’s advanced optical lab. Although Marshal Jo did not understand the technology, he did understand that it was decades ahead of anything in North Korea. At dinner, our three Korean businessmen could not only talk to Marshal Jo in his own language but they served as examples of how successful Koreans can be in the free market system, which we (and North Korea’s Chinese colleagues) were encouraging the North to consider.

The next day Marshal Jo flew to Washington to meet President Clinton and other government officials, and gave the president an invitation from Kim Jong Il to visit Pyongyang. On his last evening in Washington, Secretary Albright held a banquet for Marshal Jo, which I attended, sitting beside him. The banquet coincided with my birthday, and Secretary Albright led the traditional “Happy Birthday” song. Marshal Jo learned in the ensuing table discussion that I was three weeks older than he, whereupon (in the North Korean culture greater age implies greater wisdom) he rose and toasted my advanced years, to the general amusement of all the Americans in the room. The warm feelings in the room that night, along with the developments of the previous year, made us all hopeful that the threat of a nuclear North Korea was behind us. But that was not to be.

By then, President Clinton had only three months left in his second term. The two major foreign policy issues he wanted to address before leaving office were North Korea normalization and an Israel-Palestine peace treaty. He held both in high priority, believed that he had a chance to achieve one, but did not have time for both. He chose to spend his remaining time on a Mideast peace treaty, and almost succeeded but ultimately fell short when Yasser Arafat developed cold feet at the last minute. So sadly then, despite a determined and creative effort, President Clinton lost on both issues.

Colin Powell, who was the chairman of the Joint Chiefs when I joined the Clinton administration, was now the designated Secretary of State in the George W. Bush administration. I brought him up to date on our negotiations, and he told me that he planned to follow up on our negotiations with North Korea and try to bring them to a successful conclusion. Just six weeks after President Bush’s inauguration, South Korean president Kim Dae Jung visited Washington for reassurance that the new administration would follow through on the North Korea negotiations that I had started. Secretary Powell apparently gave him that assurance, which led to the next morning’s Washington Post headlines reading: “Bush to Pick up Clinton Talks.” That same afternoon, when President Kim met with President Bush, the latter told Kim flatly that he was breaking off all dialogue with North Korea, and for two years there were no discussions with the North. I was confused and angry as I saw our long and carefully conducted diplomacy being summarily rejected. And I was despondent at what the future would bring in Korea as this opportunity for diplomacy slipped away. I appealed to my long-time friends in the State Department, Colin Powell and Rich Armitage, but they had no real option but to comply with the president’s decision.

In 2000, we had the possibility (not a certainty) of reaching some degree of normalization with a North Korea that appeared ready to give up its nuclear aspirations for economic revival. By 2015 we faced an angry and defiant North Korea that had armed itself with six to ten nuclear bombs, was producing fissile material for more bombs, and was testing the components of long-range missiles. Based on those outcomes, this is perhaps the most unsuccessful exercise of diplomacy in our country’s history.