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China can help defuse the nuclear crisis with North Korea, William Perry says
China is in a unique position to defuse the mounting nuclear brinkmanship on the Korean Peninsula, Professor William J. Perry, former secretary of defense, told associates of the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research on Jan. 15.
As one of North Korea's only friends, China could put "serious pressure" on the country to rejoin the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which it quit Jan. 10. China also could become an "active interlocutor" in bringing the United States and its longtime enemy together to find a diplomatic way out of the crisis, Perry said.
Military tensions on the Korean Peninsula have been escalating since North Korea admitted to having a secret nuclear program last October.
"We consider a serious nuclear program to be an unacceptable security risk," Perry said of North Korea's admission that it had begun a uranium enrichment program and reactivated its plutonium-producing Yongbyon complex, closed since a 1994 agreement with the United States.
Perry, the Michael and Barbara Berberian Professor, shared his insights on the evolving security relationship between Washington and Beijing during an hour-long talk. He based his comments on experience from working "intensely" on U.S.-China relations for more than two decades. The U.S. secretary of defense from 1994 to 1997, Perry is co-director of the Preventive Defense Project, a research collaboration between Stanford and Harvard that focuses in part on non-governmental dialogue with China and addresses the legacy of Cold War weapons of mass destruction.
In recent days, Perry said, North Korea has begun processing several thousand nuclear fuel rods that will yield enough weapons-grade plutonium to make about five nuclear bombs within a few months. By next year, production could increase to five to 10 bombs a year. "This poses an imminent threat," he said. "The American strategy is designed to ensure that the present activities in Yongbyon do not reach production stage. We've got about two to three months."
North Korea's nuclear program could "very well have a domino effect" in the region, Perry cautioned, as Japan, Taiwan and South Korea question their own non-nuclear status: "What we see at hand is a nuclear arms race." Perry also suggested that North Korea might pay for its nuclear program by selling arms to the highest bidder, including terrorists. He added that if the Stalinist regime collapses, the ensuing chaos could lead to a "loose-nukes problem in spades."
Allowing current tensions on the Korean Peninsula to escalate into a war is simply unacceptable, Perry said. Although the United States has the military capability to destroy the Yongbyon facility with a cruise missile strike, he said this would lead to a war being fought in the region between Seoul and the North Korean border. "We would win and we would slaughter the North Korean army, but casualties among Korean civilians would be high," Perry said. "This is a war to be avoided."
The only thing worse than such a war is allowing North Korea's nuclear weapons production to continue, Perry said. "These are two terrible alternatives, so we have to find a third choice that's what diplomacy is all about." China can play a key role in bringing North Korea to the table because it is the country's primary supplier of aid, keeping its economy from collapsing, Perry explained.
"The goal is not to ask China to negotiate with North Korea, as has been suggested," he said. "The key issue with North Korea is a security guarantee from the U.S. No other country can broker that for us -- that requires direct discussion from the United States and North Korea at the highest level." However, he said, China can be involved by facilitating and hosting a meeting between the two nations.
In the last two years, U.S. relations with China have undergone a "radical change," Perry said, moving from competition to cooperation. In its newly released national security strategy, the United States has replaced a traditional balance of power strategy with one based on forming a coalition with "great powers" to counter the common threat of terrorism. "China is explicitly included as one of those great powers," he said. "This change in strategy is truly a paradigm shift of great significance."
While this development could signal lasting change, Perry noted it would be affected by China's position on North Korea, Iraq and Taiwan.
In addition to securing China's active role in pressuring North Korea to abandon its nuclear program, Perry said Washington needs Beijing's passive support against Iraq's weapons program. While China has supported the U.N. resolution concerning inspections of weapons of mass destruction, he said it is unclear this position will be maintained if the United States takes military action in Iraq. "Depending on how this drama of inspection and disarmament unfolds, China's continued support is by no means guaranteed," he said. "If, when a crisis point arrives, China's cooperation is not forthcoming, it could put a considerable damper on the new, positive relationship."
Finally, Perry discussed the "perennial" issue of a conflict with China over Taiwan. In the past, he said he considered such a conflict to be a real possibility. "Today, I'm much more optimistic," he said. "Not because of anything that China or Taiwan has done, but I have come to believe that time is on the side of peaceful, political integration."
Perry based this observation on the economic integration between China and Taiwan that has been taking place at "breathtaking speed" during the last two years. Cultural and social integration is following closely, he said, and political integration will follow, provided that both sides are patient and allow it to happen at its own pace. In the last two years, he said, international business investment has been shifting from Taipei to Shanghai. "The energy is now in Shanghai, not Taiwan," he said. "This is a huge change from the past."
By Lisa Trei