At a time when US officials bluntly warn that the risk of a war with North Korea is growing by the day, two unlikely people from different generations and backgrounds have emerged with the experience, political savvy, and moral authority that could help put the United States on a pathway to peace.
One is William Perry, an engineer, military technocrat, and defense investor who came close to launching a cruise missile to destroy North Korea’s one nuclear facility as President Clinton’s Secretary of Defense in 1994. Perry recently revealed that, on his recommendation, Clinton was ready to send an additional 30,000 US troops to the peninsula “to defend against a surprise attack from North Korea and safeguard Seoul,” and that he had lined up South Korean and Japanese support for his plans.
Perry, now 90 and an emeritus professor at Stanford University, was branded a “war maniac” by the government in Pyongyang when he made those threats. Yet he still managed to negotiate a remarkable agreement in 2000—later scuttled by President Bush after it was approved in principle by his Secretary of State, Colin Powell—that would have terminated North Korea’s missile program entirely and led to a non-aggression treaty between the two countries. He has been speaking out about the dangers of nuclear proliferation for years.
The other is Suzanne DiMaggio, a “dialogue practitioner” and senior fellow at the New America Foundation in New York. She has spent years working with the United Nations and related institutions to reduce tensions in the Middle East and help break down barriers between the United States, Iran, and Myanmar. Her Iran dialogue project is now in its sixteenth year.
Since 2015, DiMaggio has led a private initiative involving former US and European officials and diplomats to meet with North Korean officials to discuss peace and security issues. Last month, she broke her silence on those talks and, with former US diplomat Joel Wit, laid out a potential path for a negotiated solution with Pyongyang in an op-ed for The New York Times that was widely circulated in US foreign-policy circles.
Together, Perry and DiMaggio have helped shift the conversation in Washington away from demands for a “preventive war”—a term invoked by National Security Adviser H.R. McMaster and endorsed by CIA Director Mike Pompeo, who has also suggested “decapitation” strikes to eliminate North Korean leader Kim Jong-un—and nudged it toward diplomacy and engagement.
Here’s the gist of their arguments: A devastating conflict can and should be avoided. But that can only happen if the Trump administration postpones its ultimate goal of denuclearization in Korea and instead uses a combination of security guarantees and economic incentives to persuade Kim to freeze his nuclear and missile program where it stands now.
To meet Kim halfway, the United States must consider North Korea’s security concerns by finding ways to end the US “hostile policy” that North Korea continually invokes to rationalize its nuclear-weapons program. Specifically, Pyongyang points to US sanctions, its massive military exercises with South Korea, and the US arsenal of nukes aimed at North Korea.
Once the conditions for an initial freeze are set, the two sides could then decide on the key issues they would tackle for a broader agreement. That would set the stage for a peace process that would allow Kim to shift his focus from military development to raising living standards for North Korea’s 25 million people. Eventually, with North Korea’s security assured—under guarantees backed in part by China, Perry insists—Kim Jong-un could roll back his program. In other words, denuclearization can remain a long-term objective, but the immediate focus must be what is achievable now.
Their strategy runs directly against Trump’s “maximum pressure” of sanctions and military power until Pyongyang buckles under and agrees to negotiate away its nuclear weapons as a condition for entering talks. It also counters the emerging doctrine from McMaster, Pompeo, and their supporters that conventional deterrence, as practiced for years against Soviet and Chinese nuclear weapons, will not work against North Korea because, as hawks like John Bolton believe, its leaders are both irrational and irresponsible.
President Trump “presents a binary choice: complete capitulation on our part, or we have to take them out,” DiMaggio said at a forum on North Korea last week at the Arms Control Association in Washington. “The longer that we delude ourselves that there is a viable military option, the longer the current course of escalation will persist and the greater the chances of this spiraling into military conflict, either by design or by miscalculation.”
In an interview, DiMaggio explained that she was motivated to speak out by the growing talk of war in Washington at a time when the United States has no official relations with North Korea. Her alarm grew recently when a North Korean official told her that Pyongyang itself is concerned that North Korea and the United States “have no arrangements in place to prevent accidents.”
“That concerns me a great deal,” she told The Nation. “I have a simple philosophy: Negotiating with the enemy can be the hardest thing to do, but it’s not impossible.”
Perry knows that from direct experience. Speaking at the same ACA forum, he said his stance on North Korea flowed out of his regret that previous administrations did not complete the negotiations he and Clinton had started with the 1994 Agreed Framework, which he said “delayed North Korea’s nuclear program for a decade” but was “abandoned by both the US and North Korea” in 2003.
When President Bush, with the backing of Dick Cheney and others, refused to sign the 2000 Clinton agreement, “I was not only disappointed, I was very bitter that all this work and effort had been thrown overboard,” he said. Bush tried again with the “Six-Party Talks,” but those failed as well because, in his view, “while we were talking, [the North Koreans] were building.” Pyongyang exploded its first nuclear device in 2006.
In 2016, before North Korea’s test of its first hydrogen bomb and its stunning accomplishments this year in building ICBMs, Perry said he proposed to the Obama administration that it embark on a diplomatic quest to freeze Kim’s nuclear program; unfortunately, his advice was “never pursued.” Now it’s too late to forestall that program, he says, and as a result North Korea has 20 to 25 atomic weapons and several hundred missiles. “We should never have let them get that arsenal,” said Perry. “I believe we could have averted today’s outcome if we’d concluded that agreement in 2000.”
Both DiMaggio and Perry operate out of a sense of humanitarian realism that recognizes the true nature of North Korea, the limits of American power, and the calamity that another Korean war would bring. “We have to see North Korea as it is, not as we’d like it to be,” Perry said. “Now they have a nuclear arsenal, and they’re very happy with it. To say we want them to give up their arsenal before we talk to them is sheer idiocy.” He added: “I don’t believe North Korea will use nuclear weapons in an unprovoked attack. This regime is ruthless and reckless, but not suicidal.”
But he said force, and the threat of force, won’t work against Pyongyang and its hereditary dictators. “It is easy to antagonize but difficult to intimidate the North Koreans,” he said. “Military exercises intended to threaten the North Koreans do not have a history of effectively tempering their actions.” Diplomacy won’t immediately end its nuclear program, but it “could lower the likelihood of blundering into another war,” he said.
And if a war comes, he warned the ACA audience, it would be “devastating” to Japan and Korea and “could entail World War I and World War II casualties.”
Joe Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund, said the work of Perry and DiMaggio is essential because the confrontation with North Korea has reached such a dangerous phase. “There’s a growing chorus in this town that wants to go to war,” Cirincione said in a telephone interview. “There are people who believe we have a real military option, that we can launch limited strikes or a massive first strike, and we could win a new Korean War.”
Some, like Senator Lindsey Graham, acknowledge that millions could die, “but they would die over there,” Cirincione added. “This is incredible, immoral, and insane, yet we still may do it.” In this context, the contributions of both Perry and DiMaggio are crucial. The former defense secretary “is one of the most responsible voices in national security, certainly in Democratic circles but also on a bipartisan basis,” Cirincione said. As for DiMaggio, “What Suzanne does is to say, ‘Look, we have options here, there’s a diplomatic opening, the North Koreans want to talk,” he said. “Let’s not shut them off or insist on preconditions that we won’t negotiate unless they surrender. That won’t work.”
“What’s great about Suzanne and Bill is that they’re very measured, tempered, and thoughtful in their approach,” said Christine Ahn, the founder of Women Cross DMZ, an international group of women with ties to both North and South Korea, in an interview. “There’s an arrogance to many Americans working on Korean issues that neither of them possesses. It makes them approachable and helps create dialogue.”
Proponents of engagement have their work cut out for them. Over the past few months, as Kim has continued to defy UN and US sanctions by testing his nuclear and missile capabilities, the United States has responded by ratcheting up its military exercises with South Korea and issuing unprecedented threats to destroy the entire country if Kim refuses to dismantle his nuclear weapons program.
President Trump is “not going to accept this regime threatening the United States with a nuclear weapon,” McMaster recently declared.
To turn up the pressure, last week the Pentagon and its South Korean counterpart launched a massive air exercise on the peninsula. It involved about 12,000 personnel and hundreds of advanced aircraft, bombers, and stealth fighters, and included drills to simulate attacks against North Korean missile launch sites and nuclear facilities.
The exercises, dubbed “Vigilant Ace,” were launched in response to North Korea’s test last month of its most powerful ICBM yet, a Hwasong-15 that analysts said could fly more than 8,000 miles and potentially hit any city in North America.
As the drills began, the Pentagon allowed reporters from CBS News and other networks to “embed” themselves in US fighter aircraft based in Japan and South Korea that would lead any attack on the North, underscoring the immediacy of a war to the American public. And on the cable networks, giddy war hawks explain how such attacks could work and discounted any talk of diplomacy or negotiations. “Turn on Fox News, and all you’ll hear are people talking like we have no choice,” said Cirincione.
Meanwhile, Trump is reportedly planning to ditch Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who has been the administration’s lone voice for diplomacy along with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. Tillerson would be replaced by the CIA’s Pompeo. “I’m told that’s going to happen,” said Cirincione of the swap. He recalled hearing Pompeo at last July’s Aspen Security Forum propose “separating” Kim Jong-un from his nuclear program. “That certainly sounded like a decapitation strike to many of us.”
“There’s actually some officials who believe there is a window for military action over the next few months,” DiMaggio told me. “I wish there was more public debate about this issue.”
DiMaggio, the daughter of a Japanese mother and an Italian father, developed her expertise in negotiations working with organizations affiliated with the UN, including the United Nations Association of the USA. In 2002, she began facilitating what became a high-level dialogue with Iran, and eventually served as the coordinator of the informal talks that led to the sweeping nuclear agreement with Iran in 2015. Toward the end of the Iran talks, she was approached through “third parties” by North Korean diplomats who had heard about that work.
“It seemed like a good time to get involved,” she told me. Since then, she and representatives from US and European nongovernmental organizations have met with officials from the North in Pyongyang, Oslo, and elsewhere as part of a process called “Track 1.5.”
It involves diplomats from North Korea and former US military and government officials, such as retired US Ambassador Thomas Pickering (in diplomatic parlance, “Track 1” refers to official government-to-government talks, while “Track 2” talks involve NGOs from both sides; “1.5” means officials on one side, NGOs on the other). The last such meeting took place November 20-21 in Stockholm, just before North Korea’s latest ICBM test, and were organized by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute.
In October, DiMaggio shared a stage at a nonproliferation conference in Moscow with Madame Choe Son-hui, the head of the North Korean Foreign Ministry’s North America bureau. Choe, a key participant in the Track 1.5 talks, is well established in the North as the daughter of the former vice premier for Kim Il-sung, the country’s first leader, and is said by several experts to have direct access to Kim Jong-un.
Based on discussions with Madame Choe and others, DiMaggio and Wit, the former diplomat, wrote in the Times that the North has entered “the last stage in the development of their nuclear force, implying that they have an endpoint in mind.” After the North test-fired the Hwasong-15 in late November, Kim announced that he had indeed “witnessed the accomplishment of the historic cause of the national nuclear program, the cause of building a missile power.” That led many analysts to the conclusion that Kim was now ready for talks and, as he has pledged, to refocus attention on his country’s beleaguered economy.
“I see that [statement] as a potential opening we should aggressively pursue,” DiMaggio told the ACA meeting. “I would make the case that Kim Jong-un has staked his credibility not only on nuclear development but also on economic development.”
Kim’s announcement, she added, provides a rare opportunity for both sides “to now come to the table from a position of strength.” The upcoming Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea, may provide the United States with an opportunity to “tone down” its military exercises with the South and create the atmosphere for talks, she said—a possibility that’s already being considered in Washington and Seoul.
As for North Korea’s concern about the US “hostile policy,” DiMaggio told me there are “potentially negotiable points,” including sanctions and military exercises, that present a “way forward. This is not pie in the sky.” She calls the potential US steps “adjustments”—“not stopping the exercises, but certainly finding a way to tone them down. And of course economic incentives would be another thing to offer.”
When it comes to US military concessions, Perry explained that conventional exercises in which the United States and South Korea work together to “strengthen their ability to respond to an attack” are “not only legitimate, but—probably under the [current] circumstances—are necessary.”
On the other hand, some exercises are “designed to threaten or intimidate the North” and are “quite counterproductive,” he added. As an example, he pointed to recent flights in which the Pentagon flew nuclear bombers “right up to the North Korean borders” and then turned away. Actions like that “are dangerous” and should be avoided, he said.
Cirincione, in his interview, agreed with that sentiment but took it a step further. Through its own actions and threats, the Trump administration “has created this crisis,” he said. “It’s not like the Japanese fleet is steaming toward Pearl Harbor and war will be upon us no matter what we do.” The risks of war are growing, he said, “not because events are driving us but because US policy is.”
That’s exactly what DiMaggio and Perry are trying to reverse. The Trump administration, DiMaggio says, “must move from its dithering approach to a real strategy.”