This interview with former Defense Secretary William Perry was conducted by telephone on June 20, 2013, and is running today to commemorate the 63rd anniversary of the beginning of the Korean War.
Best Defense: How close did we come to military action against North Korea in 1994? Did you think it was going to happen?
William Perry: "First of all, we were never planning initiating an attack against North Korea. They might have thought we were, but we were not....
"I was very much concerned that the actions we were taking -- we were about to take sanctions and make heavy reinforcements in South Korea -- that North Korea would see it" [as an attack]. "It would have been a war they started, not one that we started."
BD: So at the time did you think there would be war?
WP: "I didn't think so. But even more than now, we knew little about North Korea. So we were very concerned that we didn't know what was going on there."
In addition, "We had drawn a very public and very explicit red line, that they would not process plutonium or that we would take some action." [So there was a possibility of] "a surgical strike" [against their nuclear facilities. But before that happened, there were several steps: Perry would have to recommend the strike to the president, the president would have to approve it, and South Korea would need to be brought in.] "There were a lot of ifs."
BD: How big would that strike have been? How many aircraft, how many precision-guided munitions?
WP: "We were not planning aircraft, we were planning conventional cruise missiles, and only against the reprocessing facility."
BD: How many cruise missiles?
WP: "I don't remember. The accuracy of these missiles is such that I don't believe, then or now, it would take many."
BD: How have your views of North Korea changed since then?
WP: "Well, we've learned a lot about North Korea since then.... It is very clear to me now what I believed then but wasn't sure about, which is that they didn't want a war with the United States."
BD: How have you advised the Obama administration about how to handle North Korea?
WP: "I don't feel qualified to advise them today.... In 1994, I was in the middle of it. I am not in that position now.... [So] I am willing to suggest alternatives to consider, but I will not say, ‘This is what you should do,' because I am not well-informed enough to do that."
BD: Do you think North Korea's leadership will ever give up nuclear weapons?
WP: "I would never say never, but I certainly understand it is more difficult to give up nuclear weapons than it was in 1994.... I think the turning point was in 2002, 2003, when they actually reprocessed plutonium. To my mind, that was a very serious red line. I think it was a whole new ballgame after that."
BD: What should we be doing now?
WP: [My preference is the "3 No's" -- that is, no new nuclear weapons, no improved nuclear weapons, and no export of nuclear weapons.] "Until we get those being negotiated, then it is feckless to be talking about a policy of eliminating nuclear weapons. I don't think we should give up that objective of eliminating North Korean nuclear weapons. I just don't think it is a viable negotiating position today."
BD: What else should we be doing? Are there more aggressive steps you'd like to see?
WP: "I think we should be taking stronger measures to keep them from developing ICBMs.... We still have that opportunity. They have to test ICBMs to ensure they are effective. I believe our strategy ought to be to keep them from developing a successful ICBM."
Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008.