Former Defense Secretary William Perry believes the Bush Administration isn't being tough enough with North Korea. In an op-ed in today's Washington Post, Mr. Perry and his co-author, former Assistant Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, argue that if Pyongyang continues launch preparations for its TD-2 long-range missile, the United States should be prepared to destroy it--before it can be fired.
At first blush, Mr. Perry's suggestion seems surprisingly forceful, given his role in a Clinton Administration that (arguably) coddled Kim Jong-il, and entered into a sham "Agreed To" framework that allowed the North to build nuclear weapons, while receiving fuel and food assistance from the U.S. But apparently, the former SecDef has always been more hawkish than most of the Clinton crowd, particularly in his views on North Korea. The Post reports that Mr. Perry supervised plans for potential airstrikes against the DPRK in 1994, in the event that diplomacy failed.
Unfortunately, the paper ignores a salient fact in hyping Mr. Perry's "get tough credentials." In a Clintonian universe, diplomatic efforts with Pyongyang would never fail. In fact, the Administration was so anxious to conclude a deal with the North that it even endorsed the "diplomacy" of former President Jimmy Carter, who helped broker the arrangement. Prospects for airstrikes against the DPRK in 1994 were about the same as George Patton's "phantom army" invading Normandy 40 years earlier. Talk of airstrikes was largely that--just talk, designed to nudge Pyongyang closer to an agreement. When the North saw it would get everything it wanted (and then some), a deal became inevitable.
But I digress. While we've long advocated a tougher approach against North Korea, Mr. Perry's may be a little too draconian. Taking out the TD-2 launch complex with sub-launched cruise missiles would be interpreted by Pyongyang as an act of war, and invite a similar response by the North. The DPRK has hundreds of ballistic missiles, and it's not inconceivable that Pyongyang could retaliate with a SCUD barrage against the South, and NO DONG strikes against U.S. bases in Japan and Okinawa. Such attacks would result in collateral damage, civilian casualties and a potential escalation into all-out war.
According to Mr. Perry, Pyongyang has little incentive to attack the south, since it would mean the end of Kim Jong-il's regime after a "few, short bloody weeks of war." That may be optimistic. As we've noted before, a successful invasion of the south requires that North Korea only grab the northern part of South Korea, including Seoul. Preventing that requires a massive influx of U.S. air and naval power--and the full mobilization of ROK reserves--a process that takes at least two weeks to complete. And that's assuming that we have adequate intelligence warning. With much of North Korea's military and missile forces postured near the DMZ, intel warning for a limited DPRK attack may be measured in hours, not days or weeks. In other words, Pyongyang has the ability to launch a surprise attack and gain many of their objectives before the full weight of allied combat power can be employed. Admittedly, the prospect of a NK ground attack is lower in the summer (when most of the troops are engaged in agriculture), but a counter-attack with ballistic missiles is a genuine possibility, easily executed.
Equally ludicrous is Mr. Perry and Mr. Carter's assertion that "creative diplomacy" could have averted the current crises. If they define innovative diplomacy in terms of the disasterous 1994 agreement, then we'll take a pass. In fact, one could argue that the "Agreed To" framework led to the current situation, by (a) allowing North Korea to proceed with the development of nuclear weapons and delivery platforms, and (b) teaching Pyongyang that the Americans will eventually cave to your demands, if you only bluster and threaten enough. Perry and Carter were part of a national security team that proved--conclusively--that unilateral diplomacy doesn't work with North Korea.
From our perspective, Bush Administration plans to possibly engage the TD-2 with ballistic missile defenses (if it threatens U.S. territory). The odds for a successful engagement are better than Mr. Perry and Mr. Carter would have you believe, and, more importantly, the BMD scenario provides more flexibility in dealing with North Korea after the event occurs. The Perry-Carter approach would work only if the U.S. had hard intelligence that the TD-2 will be an ICBM test (vice a space vehicle launch), and had pre-deployed enough combat power to deter an escalated North Korean response. Absent those factors, the Bush Administration's measured response is a better option, at least for now.