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Tough talk, too late

June 23, 2006|Gabriel Schoenfeld | GABRIEL SCHOENFELD is senior editor of Commentary magazine.

THE U.S. intelligence community is training its reconnaissance assets on a missile test site in North Korea right now. What the photographs reveal is advanced preparation for a test of a new missile, the Taepodong 2 -- which has intercontinental range, could hit Alaska and could potentially be fitted with a nuclear warhead, of which North Korea may have five or six. What should the United States do in response?

One provocative answer comes from William Perry and Ashton Carter, who were, respectively, secretary and assistant secretary of Defense under President Clinton. Writing in the Washington Post, the two say that "if North Korea persists in its launch preparations, the United States should immediately make clear its intention to strike and destroy the North Korean Taepodong missile before it can be launched."

This, obviously, is a radically aggressive position. Such a preemptive strike could lead to untold repercussions. Would Kim Jong Il, the North's "Dear Leader," be likely to retaliate with a massive artillery assault on densely populated South Korea in which hundreds of thousands might perish?

Perry and Carter argue that he would not. Why, they ask, would the North attack the South for an action taken unilaterally by the United States? What is more, "an invasion of South Korea would bring about the certain end of Kim Jong Il's regime within a few bloody weeks of war, as surely he knows." They predict the North would absorb our surgical strike rather than risk suicide.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Monday June 26, 2006 Home Edition California Part B Page 11 Editorial Pages Desk 0 inches; 36 words Type of Material: Correction
North Korea: A June 23 article wrongly implied that Kim Jong Il was the leader of North Korea during the nuclear crisis of 1994. Kim's father, Kim Il Sung, was the nation's leader at the time.

Are they right, and how can we be sure?

Obviously, we cannot be. But one way to examine this question is to look at how Perry and Carter managed things when they advised Clinton during the last North Korean crisis.

In 1994, North Korea ejected international inspectors from its reactor at Yongbyon and was poised to reprocess its nuclear fuel, giving it the capacity to build half a dozen nuclear weapons in short order. The Clinton team, Perry and Carter recollected, prepared a detailed plan to attack the Yongbyon facility with precision-guided conventional munitions. "The likely result," Perry and Carter wrote in 2002, would have been a "lashing out by North Korea's antiquated, but large and fanatical, military across the [demilitarized zone] ... Thousands of U.S. troops and tens of thousands of South Korean troops would be killed, and millions of refugees would crowd the highways." Despite these potential horrors, Perry and Carter came to conclude that North Korea's nuclear program was even more dangerous, and they "were prepared to risk a war to stop it." Only when Jimmy Carter stepped in to "solve" the problem through his brand of personal diplomacy was the plan for a preemptive strike dropped.

Perry and Carter do not explain why a preemptive U.S. strike now would not lead to a horrific war, while the one they were advocating back then likely would have. One possible reason is that relations between the North and South have greatly improved in the intervening years. They might also argue, with some justification, that the increased threat of a North Korean nuclear attack on the United States justifies the risk of triggering a war.

Still, their argument is disconcerting. Was the White House really so ready to roll the dice back in 1994 as they make it seem? Or have these two former officials been engaged in a bit of historical revisionism designed to make timorousness look like toughness?

The latter seems to be the case. In open testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 1995, Perry was at pains to state that a preemptive strike against the North Korean reactor was only a "theoretical alternative."

After ascertaining that the U.S. possessed the technical means to take successful military action, was that the course Perry and Carter recommended to President Clinton?

The answer is unequivocally no. Here is Perry in his own words, which in his Senate testimony he repeated twice for emphasis: "I did not recommend that course of action to the president." Instead, Perry suggested "a robust program of sanctions on North Korea to put economic pressure on them." Yet for the Clinton administration, even this peaceful measure was weighed with great trepidation. The North Koreans, Perry testified, had "stated that the imposition of sanctions would be considered by them to be equivalent to a declaration of war. Many people wrote that off as rhetoric. I thought it was imprudent to consider it as pure rhetoric and we had to take it at face value.... I felt we could not responsibly impose sanctions on North Korea without making a substantial augmentation of our military forces in the South."

All this is supremely rich. Perry and Carter are now recommending a preemptive U.S. strike while suggesting that a North Korean response will be relatively tame if it comes at all. But when they were in office, their calculations were reversed. They feared even tame U.S. actions would provoke a ferocious North Korean response.

In other words, the record shows that Perry and Carter did not walk the walk. Neither did they talk the talk. Indeed, contemplating even nonmilitary action against Pyongyang, they were shaking in their boots.

Perhaps, in the face of the unpredictable Kim Jong Il, the boot-shaking was entirely justified. Perhaps not. But either way, the hawkish advice they today blithely proffer to the Bush administration suggests a measure of historical amnesia.

Two doleful lessons follow, both in the realm of ornithology. First, if we had acted like hawks in 1994, before North Korea had a nuclear capability, we might not be facing a potentially nuclear-tipped Taepodong missile today. Second, the case of Perry and Carter reveals that in the right political climate, it is possible to train doves to twitter like hawks. Getting them to fly like hawks is a far more difficult feat.

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