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Former Defense Secretary William J. Perry on why war with North Korea wasn’t the answer then, and it isn’t now
In 1994, the United States was on the brink of war with North Korea. The Clinton administration had intelligence that North Korea was about to move fuel rods from its nuclear reactor at Yongbyon, north of Pyongyang, to a reprocessing center — the first step in making a nuclear weapon.
The Pentagon drew up plans to destroy the facility with cruise missiles and F-117 Stealth fighters. William J. Perry, who as Defense secretary had drawn up the plan, ultimately decided not to proceed. Although he believed the Pentagon could safely destroy the plant without spreading radiation, he also thought that North Korea would retaliate against South Korea, and that the hostilities could engulf the region in a cataclysmic war.
The Clinton administration instead struck a deal to provide North Korea with energy assistance in exchange for a nuclear freeze. That deal fell apart in 2002 amid evidence that North Korea was cheating. Perry, now an 88-year-old professor emeritus at Stanford University, remains convinced that the Clinton administration did the right thing in averting military action, although North Korea’s nuclear program has continued to expand.
In an interview from Palo Alto, he explained his reasoning back then and his fears for the future.
With the Trump administration reportedly considering military action to stop North Korea’s nuclear program, we are in a similar situation. Do you feel like this is ‘Groundhog Day,’ the same dilemmas repeating themselves?
The situation is different in many respects today than it was then, but I think the answer is still the same. Which is it’s not yet time to conduct strikes against North Korea. That time might come, but I think there is still room for creative and constructive diplomacy. The reason I feel so strongly about that is the consequences of a strike. This is not like the Syrian operation where we conducted a strike which we think was relatively cost-free to us militarily.

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